NASA building silicon chips that can handle massively high-heat and then some

NASA researchers have designed and built a new circuit chip that can take the heat of a blast furnace and keep on performing.

Silicon Carbide (SiC) chips can operate in 600 degrees Celsius or 1,112 degrees Fahrenheit where conventional silicon-based electronics -- limited to about 350 C -- would fail.In the past, integrated circuit chips could not withstand more than a few hours of high temperatures before degrading or failing. This chip exceeded 1,700 hours of continuous operation at 500 degrees Celsius - a breakthrough that represents a 100-fold increase in what has previously been achieved, NASA said.

Typically as chips become more dense, they are constrained by their own heat, with modern processors using up to 100 watts per square centimeter. That is already pushing the upper limit of current cooling technology, which relies on fans to blow air over heat sinks. 

The new silicon carbide differential amplifier integrated circuit chip may provide benefits to anything requiring long-lasting electronic circuits in very hot environments such as jets, spacecraft and industrial machinery.

In particular, NASA said SiC applications will include energy storage, renewable energy, nuclear power, electrical drives. The use of the high temperature packaging and operation of SiC power modules for its power electronics equipment will bring about the benefits of increase in power density, reduction in heat sink requirements (thus smaller size and mass), and higher frequency operation that also results in lower mass for the filters and transformers.

In addition, the capabilities of handling higher voltage and current requirements yet with smaller die sizes is also appealing to reduce NASA’s missions operation and launch costs. This high temperature, radiation hardened SiC-based power conversion system will find extensive applications in space explorations for various power management and distributions.The development, demonstration, and integration of high-performance, lightweight, compact SiC-based inverter will be directly applicable to the military, transportation, energy, aerospace and other commercial sectors for various power management and distribution.

Targeted applications include electric drive, distributed energy resources, and energy storages. Commercial inverters in a variety of industries (defense, energy, automobile, aircraft etc.) will greatly benefit from this technology. Additional potential benefits of long-lasting high temperature integrated circuitry extend to oil and natural gas well drilling and anything requiring long lasting electronic circuits in very hot environments, including robotic exploration on the hostile surface environment of Venus, NASA said in a statement.

““This new capability can eliminate the additional plumbing, wires, weight and other performance penalties required to liquid-cool traditional sensors and electronics near the hot combustion chamber, or the need to remotely locate them elsewhere where they aren’t as effective,” said Phil Neudeck, an electronics engineer and team lead for this work by the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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