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Ozark ICs develops 500°C PDK for Venus exploration

Posted: 05 Aug 2015     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:NASA  Venus  Ozark IC  Venus  MCU 

The surface of Venus is almost 500°C, hot enough to melt lead and turn aluminum into a slurry, prompting the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) to hire high/low temperature specialists, fabless Ozark Integrated Circuits Inc., a spin-off from the University of Arkansas, to build a 500°C process design kit (PDK) with $245,000 from the Small Business Innovation Research Programme.

"We are grateful to the National Science Foundation [NSF] to previously fund Ozark ICs to create a 350°C PDK," said Jim Holmes, a veteran from Texas Instruments, who is now CTO at Ozark ICs. "Our success with the NSF PDK has prompted NASA to follow up with a two-phase project to build a 500°C PDK for the chips to be used in the Venus Landsailing Rover."

As the most hostile environment in the solar system, NASA has high hopes to outperform the Russian and Japanese probes that have not fared well in their explorations of Venus, lasting at most a few hours before failing. In the first phase of the Ozark IC project, it will prove that it can boost its 350°C PDK, fabricated at Raytheon Systems Ltd, where it is called HiT-SiC CMOS, to 500°C. In particular, NASA wants a reliable ultraviolet imager for planetary composition experiments, in particular to study the environment on Venus. The second part of the phase one award is to build an MCU with real-time programmability for the Venus Landsailing Rover that professor Alan Mantooth, a EE at University of Arkansas who co-founded and serves on its board, will lead the effort with the help of his gaggle of doctoral candidates.

Silicon-carbide chips

Ozark Integrated Circuits builds silicon-carbide chips for high temperature environments from 350°C to 500°C. (Source: Ozark ICs)

If successful, NASA will choose a vendor to use Ozark IC's PDK for the second phase that will produce the mixed-signal sensors, actuators, MCUs and other chips that will operate outside the "cool box" in which the Venus Landsailing Rover's main processors will be housed at normal room temperature.

NASA's proposed Venus Landsailing Rover

NASA's proposed Venus Landsailing Rover will use winds to push vehicle, or alternatively raise a balloon to float over obstacles. (Source: NASA)

One key to surmounting the hurdles to 500°C ICs is the substrate, for which Ozark ICs has chosen silicon carbide, using standard silicon processes atop the wafer to fabricate the transistors and other active devices. However for the interconnect aluminum is too unstable, since it melts at 632°C, and even copper is unsatisfactory at the high pressures on Venus (nine million Pascals compared to 101 thousand Pascals on Earth). Ozark ICs' Holmes claims to have a solution for the metallisation layers of their Venus-compatible ICs, but the company is keeping it a trade secret for the time being.

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