Less is More: Computer Chip Faster than 17,000 Quad Core Processors

Tuesday, September 29 2009

Written by Ken Kingery

MOSCOW, Idaho – Researchers at the University of Idaho have created a single computer chip more powerful than 17,000 Intel quad core processors that runs on .03 percent of the power those chips would require.

The chip will be used on NASA’s developing Geostationary Synthetic Thinned Aperture Radiometer (GeoSTAR) project, which will observe hurricanes and other severe storms in the U.S. It is the latest in a long series of microprocessors created for NASA by the Center for Advanced Microelectronics and Biomolecular Research (CAMBR) located in Post Falls.

“We were racing against the clock and had to use technology we’ve never used before to get the chip completed,” said Sterling Whitaker, who led the team of computer engineers that included Lowell Miles and Laura Davis. “But that’s our job.”

The chip is responsible for correlating 588 antennas in real-time. This means the team had to ensure it fit with the system of electronics featuring many inputs and outputs without crossing any data streams. It also had to run on 120 watts of power – barely more than a typical light bulb.

To achieve these goals, the teams used two technologies new to CAMBR. One was a packaging system designed to deliver power throughout the chip via a number of half-spheres spaced evenly across its surface. The second was utilizing an IBM fabrication facility capable of creating circuits 90 nanometers thick – about the width of a human hair.

Though commercial electronics have used this technology for some time, they could not make the electronics resistant to radiation, which is required for operations in space. However, Whitaker pioneered a new technology that takes advantage of IBM’s manufacturing process. The technology is promising enough to have recently earned $1.6 million of support from a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency/Space and Naval Warfare research program.

Another complicating factor in the chip fabrication: IBM’s facilities are only available for government use twice a year. To meet their deadline, the CAMBR team had to complete the chip in seven months or deliver the device half a year behind schedule. Because the processor is central to the electronics of the entire satellite, missing the deadline would have delayed the entire project.

“We had a lot of fun,” recalled Whitaker. “But we worked awfully hard. When you get a group of engineers together, accomplishing the project becomes more important than a lot of other things in our lives.”
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About the University of Idaho
Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s flagship higher-education institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year; the University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation ranking for high research activity. The university’s student population includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars. Offering more than 130 degree options in 10 colleges, the university combines the strengths of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. For information, visit www.uidaho.edu.  

About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals. For information, visit www.uidaho.edu.