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Posts Tagged ‘Engineering’

This article appeared in Fermilab Today on July 24, 2014.

Fermilab engineer Jim Hoff has invented an electronic circuit that can guard against radiation damage. Photo: Hanae Armitage

Fermilab engineer Jim Hoff has invented an electronic circuit that can guard against radiation damage. Photo: Hanae Armitage

Fermilab engineer Jim Hoff has received patent approval on a very tiny, very clever invention that could have an impact on aerospace, agriculture and medical imaging industries.

Hoff has engineered a widely adaptable latch — an electronic circuit capable of remembering a logical state — that suppresses a commonly destructive circuit error caused by radiation.

There are two radiation-based errors that can damage a circuit: total dose and single-event upset. In the former, the entire circuit is doused in radiation and damaged; in an SEU, a single particle of radiation delivers its energy to the chip and alters a state of memory, which takes the form of 1s and 0s. Altered states of memory equate to an unintentional shift from logical 1 or logical 0 and ultimately lead to loss of data or imaging resolution. Hoff’s design is essentially a chip immunization, preemptively guarding against SEUs.

“There are a lot of applications,” Hoff said. “Anyone who needs to store data for a length of time and keep it in that same state, uncorrupted — anyone flying in a high-altitude plane, anyone using medical imaging technology — could use this.”

Past experimental data showed that, in any given total-ionizing radiation dose, the latch reduces single-event upsets by a factor of about 40. Hoff suspects that the invention’s newer configurations will yield at least two orders of magnitude in single-event upset reduction.

The invention is fondly referred to as SEUSS, which stands for single-event upset suppression system. It’s relatively inexpensive and designed to integrate easily with a multitude of circuits — all that’s needed is a compatible transistor.

Hoff’s line of work lies in chip development, and SEUSS is currently used in some Fermilab-developed chips such as FSSR, which is used in projects at Jefferson Lab, and Phoenix, which is used in the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The idea of SEUSS was born out of post-knee-surgery, bed-ridden boredom. On strict bed rest, Hoff’s mind naturally wandered to engineering.

“As I was lying there, leg in pain, back cramping, I started playing with designs of my most recent project at work,” he said. “At one point I stopped and thought, ‘Wow, I just made a single-event upset-tolerant SR flip-flop!'”

While this isn’t the world’s first SEUSS-tolerant latch, Hoff is the first to create a single-event upset suppression system that is also a set-reset flip-flop, meaning it can take the form of almost any latch. As a flip-flop, the adaptability of the latch is enormous and far exceeds that of its pre-existing latch brethren.

“That’s what makes this a truly special latch — its incredible versatility,” says Hoff.

From a broader vantage point, the invention is exciting for more than just Fermilab employees; it’s one of Fermilab’s first big efforts in pursuing potential licensees from industry.

Cherri Schmidt, head of Fermilab’s Office of Partnerships and Technology Transfer, with the assistance of intern Miguel Marchan, has been developing the marketing plan to reach out to companies who may be interested in licensing the technology for commercial application.

“We’re excited about this one because it could really affect a large number of industries and companies,” Schmidt said. “That, to me, is what makes this invention so interesting and exciting.”

Hanae Armitage

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This essay was motivated by a question from an engineering colleague. It would be presumptuous to say “friend,” as scientist and engineers are in a state of “friendly” rivalry, however, not to the extent as with arts. I once saw a sign in an engineering department hallway that read: Friends do not let friends study arts. Be that as it may, my colleague’s question was why scientists do not show the same order in all their work as they show in writing papers. That question I will attempt to answer in this essay.

Engineering is far older than science, being perhaps the second oldest profession, dating back at least to the building of the pyramids (Imhotep from the 27th century BCE is the oldest named engineer) and Stonehenge and probably back to when the first club was engineered.  Stonehenge is amazing as it was probably built without the documentation that is the hallmark of modern engineering practice. Unfortunately, that means we do not know what the initial requirements[1] were and this has led to much futile speculation as to its purpose.

Science and engineering are sibling disciplines, frequently mentioned together and have much in common. The main similarity is that they both deal with the observable universe and are judged by their ability to make correct predictions regarding its behaviour. For example, that the Higgs boson will be found at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) or that the building will not collapse in an earthquake. Secondarily they use similar techniques, placing high importance on analytic reasoning, to the extent that Asperger’s syndrome is sometimes called the engineer’s disease. The relation between Asperger’s syndrome and engineers or scientists may be an urban myth but it does indicate the relation of extreme analytic thought to both science and engineering. The solution to problems in both relies on the same problem solving skills, analytic thinking and mathematics. Do not let anyone tell you that either does not require a high degree of intellectual activity.

Science and engineering rely on each other. Behind every engineering project is a great deal of science, from the basic understanding of Newtonian mechanics in the building of a bridge to the advanced materials science in the construction of a cell phone. Actually, the cell phone is a good example of all the science needed: it depends on Newtonian mechanics (the construction of the cell phone towers), quantum mechanics (the operation of the transistors), classical electromagnetism i.e. Maxwell’s equations (the propagation of the signal from the tower to the cell phone), materials science (almost all the cell phone itself), and general and special relativity (the GPS timing that is necessary in some cell phone technologies).

Equally, science is beholden to engineering. From simple things like the buildings that house scientific equipment to complicated things like the ATLAS detector at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Making a building may seem simple but, as I see with the new ARIEL building at TRIUMF, nothing is simple and even something as basic as a laboratory building relies on engineering expertise. The ATLAS detector is another story. Its size and complexity are a marvel of engineering virtuosity. Back to TRIUMF, the IEEE has recognized the TRIUMF cyclotron, commissioned in 1974 and the main driver for much of TRIUMF’s science program, as an Engineering Milestone. Even the slide rule I used back in ancient history as an undergraduate[2] was an engineering achievement.

Despite the close relationship between science and engineering the two are different. The difference can be summarized in this statement: “In engineering you do not start a project unless you know the answer while in science you do not start a project if you know the answer.” Engineering is based on everything being predictable; you do not start building a bridge unless you know you can complete it. In science, the purpose of a project is to answer a question to which the answer is currently unknown. For example, if the properties of the Higgs boson were known, it would not have been necessary to build the LHC. Good engineering practice is based on order but at the center of science is chaos. We are exploring the unknown; great discoveries can come from serendipity. In science, something not working as expected can lead to the next big breakthrough. In engineering, something not working as expected can lead to the bridge collapsing. Advances in science are frequently due to creativity, not following rules.

This difference in perspective leads to very different cultures in the two disciplines. The engineer is much more concerned with process and following procedure. The scientist with following up his most recent hunch—after all, it could lead to a Nobel Prize.  Engineering versus science: order versus creative chaos. This is clearly an oversimplification as there is no clean separation between engineering and science, but it is a good indication of the divergence between the two mindsets. Thus, although engineering and science are closely related and indeed intertwined, the two, in their heart of hearts, are very different; engineering uses science in order to build and science uses engineering in order to explore.

Additional posts in this series will appear most Friday afternoons at 3:30 pm Vancouver time. To receive a reminder follow me on Twitter: @musquod.


[1] Project management jargon alert: requirements used in technical project management sense.

[2] HP produced the first pocket calculator when I was an undergraduate student.

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