VU School of Engineering

VU School of Engineering

Vanderbilt University’s Institute for Space and Defense Electronics has been selected as the Center of Excellence in Radiation Effects by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Air Force Research Lab.

The VU institute, which was founded to research and design radiation-hardened electronics, will spearhead a $5 million, five-year research project with Ohio State University and the University of California at Santa Barbara that aims to measure the radiation tolerance of materials used by defense and space agencies.

Radiation-hardened electronics, also known as rad-hard electronics, are components that are specifically designed to be less susceptible to physical damage — breaking or melting — as well as logic damage — data losses or processing errors — from exposure to high levels of radiation and extreme temperatures, according to Vanderbilt’s ISD director and professor Ronald Schrimpf.

Because of their low failure rates in radioactive and harsh environments, rad-hard electronics are often used by space agencies, the defense community and nuclear scientists.

Scrhimpf said the research team, composed of undergraduate and graduate engineering students, is specifically interested in evaluating the reliability and radiation tolerance of gallium nitride, a semiconductor typically used in high-voltage electronics.

Military, defense and space agencies prefer to use gallium nitride semiconductors as opposed to silicon semiconductors — which are used in everyday electronics such as cell phones and tablets — because gallium nitride uses less power and conducts energy faster than silicon.

“Unlike with silicon, there is no scientific consensus on how tolerant materials such as gallium nitride are to high levels of radiation and extreme temperatures,” Schrimpf said. “The U.S. Air Force has recruited us to assess the viability of using these parts for technology that will be exposed to harsh conditions like spacecraft, nuclear reactors and satellites.”

This isn’t the first time these three universities have collaborated on a technical project. Vanderbilt, Ohio State and UCSB have worked on several DOD research projects focused on radiation’s effects on electronics including over the course of the past 10 years.

“The work conducted through the Center of Excellence is critical to ensure the necessary performance, reliability and survivability of next-generation technologies for military and space systems, to address existing workforce shortages, and to produce the next generation of radiation-effects experts,” Schrimpf said.

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