Heat is the enemy when it comes to silicon. One of the
primary goals for system designers and overclockers is to find ways to keep
chips cool, usually by relying on innovative, or extreme, cooling methods.
The scientists at NASA, however, appear to have approached
the issue of heat from another angle – to design a chip that can operate at
intensely hot temperatures. NASA claims that its new chip, which it terms as
the “silicon carbide differential amplifier integrated circuit,” in tests exceeded
1,700 hours of continuous operation at 500 degrees Celsius. Typical computer
chips malfunction after just hours of extreme temperatures.
"It's really a significant step toward mission-enabling
harsh environment electronics," 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.
As the special processor can withstand high temperatures, the
requirement for elaborate cooling measures may be unnecessary. Freeing the need
for cooling could enable more streamlined and reliable designs.
"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,"
NASA believes that this breakthrough, that it claims
represents a 100-fold tolerance increase in what has previously been achieved,
could lead to improved safety and fuel efficiency as well as reduced emissions
from jet engines. The chip would also apply to other space exploration
applications, for example, robotic exploration on the hostile surface
environment of Venus.
For on-Earth uses, the temperature-resilient chip could also
be used in long-lasting high temperature environments, such as oil and natural
gas well drilling. Further down the line, and cost permitting, the chip would
have its uses inside automotive engines.