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Let’s Fabricate ICs in Space

Integrated circuit fabrication and applications are continuously being improved and there are breakthroughs happening quite often — on Earth. But what about a way to study ICs in a manner that we cannot do on Earth? In space, in a micro-gravity environment, there have been numerous tests going on over the years as Shuttle experiments. Right now, there are experiments running on the International Space Station (ISS) miles above us.

In 1998, the Orbital Processing of High-Quality Doped and Alloyed CdTe Compound Semiconductors experiment was run on a shuttle mission. It studied the gravitational effect on the crystal growth of bulk compound semiconductors (the doped and alloyed cadmium-telluride in the title). Three accelerometer systems were studied with respect to vibration levels in a quasi-steady acceleration field. This was a very early study and some preliminary results were observed.

Later in 2002, a MEMS (microelectromechanical system)-based, spherical, three-axis accelerometer was developed in space. Ball Semiconductor technology was used. Instead of using flat IC die, a spherical ball fabrication is possible. See Figure 1.

Figure 1

Shapes of single crystal sphere (Source: Stanford University & Ball Semiconductor Inc.)

Shapes of single crystal sphere
(Source: Stanford University & Ball Semiconductor Inc.)

In another area of interest in space, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at California Institute of Technology studied compound semiconductor devices and got an insight into reliability and failure mechanisms and radiation effects Reliability of Compound Semiconductor Devices for Space Applications).

In 2008, the focus was on wafer scale integration for smaller, lighter space craft electronics. The wafer is the substrate in this architecture. This effort has led to the Small Satellite team at NASA Ames. See my EDN article NASA PhoneSat: Crowd-sourced science via ham radio. MEMS and other sensor products are bringing miniaturization and high levels of integration in space systems.

This high integration development in ICs enable launch-on-demand satellites, low cost UAVs and sensor networks. GPS and microthruster systems will lead to space robotics, nano satellites, and small planetary lander spacecraft.

What do you think about lower-cost capabilities that enable space exploration? Is it still worth our efforts?

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14 comments on “Let’s Fabricate ICs in Space

  1. eafpres
    January 16, 2014

    @Steve–the spherical semiconductor work is interesting.  I did a little digging for Ball Semiconductor.  I found bits of information that indicated they are trying to grow things like transistors on the surface of 1 mm spheres.  One writeup said they have developed and proven all the technology to apply photo-resist, map a 2D mask into 3D using mirrors, and do the exposure and etch steps.  They don't have a website (that I can find) and I wasn't able to figure out what they think they will gain via this approach.  Any ideas?

  2. Steve Taranovich
    January 16, 2014

    Hi Blaine—the best paper on this is from the IEEE entitled “ELECTROSTATICALLY LEVITATED SPHERICAL 3-AXIS ACCELEROMETER” by Risaku Toda, et.al.

    The paper has this info, but I'm not sure it is still valid:

    Ball Semiconductor Inc.

    415 Century Parkway, Allen, TX 75013 USA, e-mail: rtoda@ballsemi.com

    The following were the other two entities that collaborated on making the spherical MEMS:

    Tokimec Inc., Marketing&RD Center
    333-4 Amma-cho, Yaita, Tochigi, 329-2136 JAPAN

    Tohoku University New Industry Creation Hatchery Center (NICHE)
    01 Aza Aoba, Aramaki, Aoba-ku, Sendai 980-8579 JAPAN

  3. Scott Elder
    January 17, 2014

    The principal of Ball Semiconductor, Akira Ishikawa, had been working on that principal prior to 1996.  He died in 2004.  The company continued on for a while, but I think it is now defunct.

  4. fasmicro
    January 22, 2014

    The really big problem for making ICs in the space may be logistics. Except for experimental purposes, there is no viability unless one can make special ICs that will be priced so well that it can cover the simple costs associated with transporting materials and products to/from earth and space.

  5. jimfordbroadcom
    January 23, 2014

    @fasmicro: my thoughts as well.  I'm thinking that fab equipment would have to be redesigned from the ground up to minimize SWaP (space, weight, and power consumption).  Right now, all of the above are very high.

  6. amrutah
    January 26, 2014

    Steve,

      Thanks for sharing the paper.

      The address “415 Century Parkway, Allen, TX 75013 USA ” points me to store named “Watchguard Video”.

  7. amrutah
    January 26, 2014

    Steve,

       “Later in 2002, a MEMS (microelectromechanical system)-based, spherical, three-axis accelerometer was developed in space “.

        With so much of radiations and limited resource is it possible to fabricate a monocrystal ball in space. It is so amazing it been done.  

      I understand of having the devices fabricated on earth and then tested for reliability and functionality in space.  Does the idea behind fabricating IC's in space (at space station) is to build a satellite on board?

  8. Steve Taranovich
    January 26, 2014

    Sorry @amrutah—It seems that Ball Semiconductor is no longer in business. They did some great research in creating round semiconductors in the late 90's and early 2000's

  9. etnapowers
    January 27, 2014

    Steve, I found very interesting this blog, I wonder if a mass production in space would be possible in case the request of devices  increases.

  10. SunitaT
    January 31, 2014

    They did some great research in creating round semiconductors in the late 90's and early 2000's

    @Steve, thanks for the post. Any particular reason why Ball semiconductors stopped this research ? Is it because  there is no demand for round semiconductors ?

  11. SunitaT
    January 31, 2014

    Does the idea behind fabricating IC's in space (at space station) is to build a satellite on board?

    @amrutah, I think the opportunities are limitless. You can build a satellite on board or you can build components for space station. Fabricating IC's in space astronauts the opportunity to build the required IC's in space itself.

  12. fasmicro
    February 4, 2014

    >> I'm thinking that fab equipment would have to be redesigned from the ground up to minimize SWaP (space, weight, and power consumption).  

    Yes, you have to build a new fab. That is why only companies like Intel with largely “infinite” resources can go on this loop chase of the Moore's Law

  13. fasmicro
    February 4, 2014

    >> Steve, I found very interesting this blog, I wonder if a mass production in space would be possible in case the request of devices  increases.

    What is the value proposition here? I cannot see the real value in making these products in the space.

  14. etnapowers
    February 6, 2014

    @fasmicro, the value in making these products in the space is that the devices would be assembled and , if possible, tested in the same environment in whom the dispositives will have to operate, this will increase reliability and will ensure a longer lifetime of the devices utilized

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