US Report: Intel supplies DOE

Summary:Presiding at a joint press conference with Intel Tuesday, Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson lauded the microprocessor company for its decision to participate in designing a radiation-proof Pentium chip.

Earlier in the day, Intel said it will license its Pentium processor design to the U.S. Department of Energy in a royalty-free deal for the development of custom-made, radiation-proof processors for space and defence purposes. The energy secretary said Intel's sharing of proprietary Pentium designs with the government may save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars and provide the government with a nearly tenfold increase in processing power over the highest performing technology in use today.

Intel will license the design to the DOE's Sandia National Laboratories, which is responsible for microelectronics research and development. Sandia, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, will develop a custom, radiation-hardened version of the Pentium processor for use in satellites, space vehicles and defence systems. Radiation hardening during manufacture protects systems and applications from later exposure to the radiation present in cosmic rays. Without pre-emptive exposure, the electronics could go haywire.

Sandia National Laboratories, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory , the Air Force Research Laboratory , and the National Reconnaissance Office will collaborate on the Pentium processor redesign to meet each agency's radiation-hardened microprocessor requirements. Some of the applications will include earth satellites, space probes, missile defence and other advanced military systems.

Richardson said that he was so impressed with the public-minded nature of Intel's gesture, that he flew into the San Francisco Bay Area in spite of the region's crippling power outage that turned out the lights to almost 380,000 residents. "What department did you say you were with?" quipped one reporter during the press conference.

The rad-hard chips, which Sandia hopes to produce in three years, will enhance space exploration, help protect the nation's nuclear armaments and provide more resilient satellites, according to Richardson and administrators from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), and the National Reconnaissance Office. "This is a unique opportunity to significantly advance the state-of-the-art in space and defence electronics," Richardson said. "Now the U.S. will be able to plumb the depths of space. . .on the power of the Pentium chip."

Radiation, such as that encountered in space or in the proximity of nuclear materials, causes malfunctions in many microelectronic devices, Richardson said, and may have led to failures such as last summer's satellite outage that interrupted service to pagers nation-wide.

Keith Hall, director for the NRO, said the nation's super-secret spy satellite agency expects the rad-hard Pentiums to help reduce the weight and size of reconnaissance spacecraft, and to improve their longevity. The press conference was a rare outing for the NRO. The agency has operated since the 1960s, but the U.S. government only acknowledged its existence in 1992, Hall said.

Sandia labs executive vice president John Crawford said first availability of the rad-hard chips will begin in three years, with commercial production due to start the following year. Sandia will be working with one or more private-sector semiconductor manufacturers to produce the chips, which will be made available only to U.S. companies. The companies that will produce the chips were not identified.

Contributions from Reuters

Topics: Hardware

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