Although rad-hard chips can be useful for all sorts of applications, two of the biggest are in space and nuclear energy.
Space. Space is a harsh environment for chips. Vibration, severe thermal variations, electrostatic discharge, and G-forces on launch all require space-bound chips to be tougher than those in the average smartphone. Of these dangers, radiation is arguably the biggest of them all. Earth’s atmosphere is a highly effective radiation shield. But satellites in orbit, especially higher orbits, are above much of the atmosphere and thus continuously exposed to high levels of damaging radiation, and intermittently exposed to even higher radiation levels when the sun is at its most active. Except for inside the shielded portion of the International Space Station, most chips in space today are “legacy chips”, radiation tolerant, but made with older technologies that render them incapable of the kind of processing we take for granted on even a mid-range smartphone: AI image processing, graphics manipulation, and so on. For this reason, many space-based devices are “dumb terminals”: They capture images, provide connectivity, and maneuver themselves, but require Earth-based processing to assist in all those things. They need to send everything down to Earth, wait for Earth to figure out what to do, then wait for Earth to transmit the right commands back. This can be slow.
New generations of rad-hard electronics for space environments will likely change that, with potentially enormous benefits. For example, NASA’s Space Cube is a family of FPGA onboard systems that help boost onboard computing capability, autonomy, and artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML) in space.6 With such advancements, spacecraft can become smarter, last longer, and be more reliable, all at the same time. Imaging satellites could observe a natural disaster such as an undersea earthquake and send tsunami alerts hours earlier, potentially saving millions of lives. Illegal methane emissions (methane contributes to short-term global warming 85 times more than CO2)7 could be detected in real time, and offenders more quickly caught and fined. Satellites at risk of collision could move—on their own initiative—much faster than they can today, mitigating the risk of runaway collisions and debris in orbit.8
Nuclear energy. Although nuclear fission energy production has decreased in the last 20 years due to concerns about safety and waste, the clock is ticking on reaching the Paris Agreement’s 2030 climate goals, and fission is attracting renewed attention as a result.9 Multiple new, modern nuclear power plants, smaller and safer than those from the past, have been proposed for the next decade. These new kinds of nuclear reactors are already being enabled by increasingly advanced rad-hard chips.
However, the Holy Grail of nuclear energy is not fission, but likely fusion. Cleaner, greener, and (theoretically) even more powerful, successful fusion reactors could help solve the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions in a few decades. But making fusion work requires magnetic fields, high pressures, and constantly fluctuating temperatures, all of which need to be sensed, interpreted, and controlled with chips that are both extremely powerful and extremely radiation-resistant.10 With recent progress making fusion power possibly more feasible than previously thought,11 the need to run these reactors could be a key driver of demand for rad-hard chips by the end of the decade.