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Dr. Wirthlin and Dr. Goeders participate in $54 million DTRA research grant


Dr. Mike Wirthlin, Dr. Jeff Goeders, and students are researching how systems on chips respond to high radiation as part of a $54 million project spanning 22 institutions.

While research grants typically only involve a few Universities, this one is unique in that it combines 12 nationally recognized universities and 10 partner institutions, national laboratories, and industrial companies.

The grant is paid for by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which works to counter and deter weapons of mass destruction. The project centers around understanding how electronics would behave or fail in the event of a nuclear disaster. Each participating school has a different area of focus; Wirthlin and Goeders’ group focuses on systems on chips (SoCs), components found in many aerospace technologies.

“We want to better understand how these complex processing systems will behave near a nuclear event,” Goeders explained. “Will they malfunction? Break? Which parts will fail first?”

It’s all about trying to understand. Goeders said that efforts to fix or prevent issues might come in the future, but they are focusing exclusively on experimentation for now.

Students have spent the past several months writing software to prepare for their first test, which will happen later this year at the Little Mountain Test Facility outside Ogden. They will place the boards in front of a radiation beam, run software to get a state of everything on the board, then repeatedly shoot it with a pulse of electrons. After each pulse they will run a test and talk to different parts of the chip to see if they still work or not.

The radiation beam could corrupt data, cause short circuits, change the color of a pixel in the picture, or shut down everything.

“Small changes can be catastrophic or have minimal impact,” Goeders said. “It can do anything, really.”

The goal of their work is to understand what happens when systems on chips (SoCs) are exposed to high levels of radiation, and what causes these systems to fail. They will work on the grant at least another five years and publicize their results.

For more information on the project at large, visit Penn State University’s news release.