Low Alpha Standard

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Objective for MPD D.9.1

  • Provide NIST-traceability for a low alpha particle standard for improving reliability of semiconductors and computer systems
  • Develop a large-area material with minimal internal emissions to calibrate detectors of ultra-low levels of ambient radiation that affects all chips, circuits and electronic devices.

Motivation: As society moves towards being connected electronically,including self-driving cars, internet of things, bioelectronic medicines and medical devices, the reliability of the underlying chips, circuitry, transistors and semiconductor components is mandatory. Current industries such as banking, transportation, communications networks, defense and advanced manufacturing increasingly rely on faultless communications. Natural sources of radiation such as cosmic rays and low levels of impurities in mined ores used in everyday materials have detrimental effects on computer chip reliability, and even more so as chips gets smaller, more powerful and more densely packed.

During two published round-robin studies, led by industry, the lab-to-lab variability in the measurement of the same sample was larger than the current alpha-particle specification of 2 α per sq. cm. per 1000 hours.

Leading semiconductor and system companies deal with this problem today through a combination of software, redundant (read more expensive) hardware, and long delays after failure. As systems are more automated and less resilient to downtime and failure, the failures that occur today due to natural radiation will become more disruptive, expensive or fatal. There exists no national calibration measurement standard at NIST or elsewhere to calibrate the detectors used to measure the ultra-low levels of natural radiation.

With a new national radiation measurement standard, the industry will be able to select purer materials with lower natural radiation levels resulting in more reliable chips that power the economic engine of this country.

Affected Applications:

  • National Security
  • Aerospace
  • The Electric Grid
  • Banking and Finance
  • Communications Networks
  • Mobile Electronics
  • Advanced Manufacturing
  • Transportation Systems (Automotive, Mass transit, Airlines)
  • Food Processing
  • Medical Devices
  • Intent of Things
  • Robotic Systems
  • Large Physics Programs
  • Dark Matter Research


Action Items: We seek congressional allocation of funds of $10 million in capital costs over 2 years (with a $1 million yearly operating budget) toward a science-based initiative at NIST to secure the long term reliability and growth of semiconductors by developing and maintaining this standard. The funds will support the development of the material used in this standard. In the most likely scenario, the primary standard would be developed and maintained at NIST. NIST would also develop and deliver secondary standards to materials suppliers, leading semiconductor and systems companies in the United States. These would be used to verify the proper operation of low background detectors that will allow U.S. companies to build and use high reliability systems. This in turn will reduce the failure rate for current and emerging electronics that affect nearly all aspects of our growing digital economy.

Next Steps:

  • Solicit impact statements from interested companies (April 2016)
  • CIRMS to speak to senior management at NIST (August 2016)
  • CIRMS to request funding allocations from Congress in FY17
  • CIRMS to work with NIST to determine logistics and requirements for implementation

Source Requirements:

  • Thick source, not monoenergetic (1 MeV < Eα < 8.8 MeV)
  • Emissivity in the range of 2 to 20 α per sq. cm. per 1000 hours
  • Make sure the emission is stable
  • Make sure the standard resists contamination (i.e. is not porous)
  • Make sure the standard is electrically conductive
  • Make sure the standard is robust for shipping and handling
  • Make sure the standard is at least 300 mm in diameter (the size of modern wafers)
  • Make sure the emission is uniform across the standard


Resource Requirements:

  • Gas ionization detectors (~$150K each) and service contracts ($25K each per year)
  • Principle Investigator support (~$300K each)
  • Postdoc support (~$150K each)
  • Grant/cooperative agreements with universities for postdoc and student engagement
  • Support NDAs/CRADAs or interaction with interested companies and labs
  • Materials costs (liquid argon, source ores, system components, housing)
  • Materials development (alloying, purification, etc.)