Speed team gets DOD grant to study effect of radiation on computer memory devices

By John R. Karman III

Standard computer memory devices can be damaged by radiation exposure; a huge problem in the event of a dirty bomb attack or nuclear power plant accident.

Micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS), which combine electrical and mechanical elements on a silicon microchip that measures less than the width of a human hair, are thought to be more impervious to radiation damage. But no one has done a careful study on the devices until now.

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a branch of the U.S. Department of Defense, has awarded the University of Louisville a $1.05 million grant for three years to conduct such a study. UofL’s J.B. Speed School of Engineering is collaborating with Vanderbilt University on the project.

“This is a great example of the kind of groundbreaking research that our engineers do every day,” said John Usher, acting dean of the Speed School. “They are working – often in partnerships with other universities, agencies and companies – to make our world a better, and safer, place.”

UofL built the MEMS devices for the study in its Micro/Nano Technology Center and characterized them at the Speed School. The devices are being exposed to radiation at Vanderbilt’s Institute for Space and Defense Electronics and will be returned to UofL for follow-up studies.

Speed School professor Bruce Alphenaar, chairman of the electrical and computer engineering department, is principal investigator on the project. Kevin Walsh, Samuel T. Fife Endowed Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the founding director of the Micro/Nano Technology Center, and Shamus McNamara, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, are co-principal investigators.

“People haven’t done a lot of work in this area, so we don’t know exactly what to expect,” Alphenaar said. “But this type of study is essential before MEMS can be used in radiation-exposed environments.”