Sandia LabNews

Sandia to radiation harden Intel's 'crown jewel' Pentium processor for space and defense needs

[Intel/sandia signatories]
RHP VIPs — The Dec. 8 announcement at Intel headquarters that the giant chip-maker is transferring the Pentium chip at no fee to Sandia to redesign into a radiation-hardened version for US military and space applications involved an impressive gathering of dignitaries. From left are Intel co-founder and Chairman Emeritus Gordon Moore, NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, AFRL Commander Maj. Gen. Dick Paul, Sandia Executive VP John Crawford, Intel President and CEO Craig Barrett, Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson, and NRO Director Keith Hall. A full-scale model of the Soujurner rover, used during NASA’s July 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission, is in the foreground. The rover contains an earlier-generation Intel chip rad-hardened by Sandia. (Photo by Randy Wong)

It didn’t come wrapped in pretty paper and a bow, but the US government got a welcome holiday-season "present" from Intel on Dec. 8, when the chip-making giant and the Department of Energy jointly announced that the company is providing a no-fee license to Sandia to redesign Intel’s Pentium� processor into a radiation-hardened chip for space and defense uses. The new radiation-hardened Pentium (RHP) will provide a nearly tenfold increase in processing power over the highest performing rad-hard chips in use today.

In recent years, the rapid pace of design innovation for commercial integrated circuit (IC) applications, such as personal computers, has outdistanced the budgetary ability of military and space designers to design comparable performance ICs for radiation environments.

Intel, DOE, and Sandia all agree that this design transfer will dramatically increase performance capability for rad-hard chips and save US taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in microprocessor design costs. As Sandia Executive VP John Crawford noted at the announcement, "If we had to pay to license the Pentium technology, government costs would go up considerably." The Pentium processor is one of the most popular computer chips in the world. Developed by Intel at an estimated cost of more than $1 billion, it can run more software — including applications, development tools, and diagnostic tools — than any other chip ever designed.

Lead DOE lab for microelectronics R&D

Sandia is DOE’s lead lab for microelectronics research and development, and will develop a custom, radiation-hardened version of the Pentium processor for use in satellites, space vehicles, and defense systems. Radiation hardening is required to "immunize" systems and applications from radiation, such as cosmic rays, which affect the reliability of conventional

Sandia has already begun work on the project. Although the Sandia/Intel agreement was signed several weeks ago, the formal announcement was delayed until Tuesday, Dec. 8, when many of the VIPs involved could gather for a news conference at Intel headquarters in Santa Clara. The announcement was made at Intel by Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson, who called the agreement a "precedent-setting show of cooperation, in which the taxpayers are among the biggest winners." Richardson heralded the agreement as a model of industry and government cooperation.

The DOE Secretary noted the importance of the agreement to the nuclear stockpile. "The Department of Energy uses rad-hard products to keep our nation’s nuclear stockpile safe, secure, and reliable without nuclear tests," he said. Referring to Sandia again as one of the nation’s "crown jewels," Secretary Richardson said the agreement is "a unique opportunity to significantly advance the state of the art in space and defense electronics."

Intel President and CEO Craig Barrett followed by reiterating that the rad-hard Pentium processor "will offer tremendous performance, flexibility, and reliability for critical government applications. We think it [the agreement] is a wonderful example of how industry and the government can work together in concert in such areas of importance as space and national defense."

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Barrett said one of Intel’s motives for donating the Pentium design is simply "patriotic allegiance to the United States." As a US corporation, he said, this is something "we can give back to the government and to the people."

Several government partners besides DOE are providing funding to help Sandia design the rad-hard version of the Pentium. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the Air Force Research Laboratory, and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) are together providing about $4 million/year to Sandia for this work for each of the next four years, a total of $16 million. Top officials from these groups joined Sandia, Intel, and DOE officials for the announcement and expressed their strong support for it and for Sandia’s technical expertise).

John Crawford thanked Intel for providing the no-fee license to Sandia and thanked DOE for its continued support for Sandia’s microelectronics R&D and for this project specifically. John added special thanks to Sandia’s other partners: "DOE and Sandia are proud to be partnering with Intel, NASA, the Air Force Research Lab, and the National Reconnaissance Office to produce the rad-hard version of the Pentium."

(Other groups interested in this technology could provide support later. In fact, one other military agency has already expressed strong interest.)

"The five generations of chips that Sandia has already hardened have been essential elements in earth satellites, the Galileo mission, missiles, nuclear weapons, and in other applications where radiation degrades both the performance and reliability of conventional electronics," John said, "and we know this new rad-hard Pentium will help our government partners stretch their technology into exciting, new areas."

Domenici applauds Intel generosity

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said Sandia and Intel both deserve congratulations for developing this latest partnership. "Intel deserves special thanks for allowing the government to benefit from the company’s extensive development work on the Pentium processor," he said. "Intel’s generosity provides the government with important new capabilities and saves it many millions of dollars. This partnership highlights the tremendous benefits that accrue to the taxpayers, as well as to private industry, when partnerships are used to leverage the resources of each party."

Sandia President Paul Robinson was honoring a commitment he made long ago to deliver the Ford/University of Michigan Fall High-Tech Lecture on Dec. 8 and could not attend the Intel/DOE announcement. However, he offered these comments that same day: "Today’s announcement represents a critical turning point both for enhancing the capabilities in radiation-hardened electronics and particularly for Sandia’s role as the stewards of radiation hardening."

Paul continued, "The event also makes me personally proud that Intel management is willing to entrust this vital piece of its corporate technology to Sandia’s safekeeping. This represents an extraordinary example of ‘exceptional service in the national interest’ on Intel’s part, and it also demonstrates that the Intel Corporation has a high trust level for Sandia and Sandians."

Among the national laboratories, only Sandia has both the design and the microelectronics fabrication infrastructure to attempt a project as complex as redesigning and manufacturing a Pentium-class chip with radiation-hardened characteristics. Sandia combines a detailed understanding of the art and science of manufacturing radiation-hardened chips with a working knowledge of the modern microelectronics industry obtained through numerous partnerships with leading-edge US microelectronics companies.

This is the latest of three Intel design transfers to Sandia for radiation hardening. Intel provided similar rights to Sandia in the 1980s for the Intel 8085 and 8051 microcontrollers. Many of these rad-hard chips are currently in use in space and military applications, including the weapon stockpile.

After redesigning the Pentium into a rad-hard version, the custom Pentiums will be fabricated in prototype quantities and tested at Sandia’s Microelectronics Development Laboratory (MDL). For later full-scale production, Sandia will actively seek, through an announcement in the federal Commerce Business Daily, the participation of specialty commercial suppliers that traditionally serve the rad-hard integrated circuit needs of defense and space-related markets. Suppliers who choose to participate in manufacturing the rad-hard Pentium for government use will receive masks and manufacturing instructions from Sandia, but all design information will remain at Sandia.

Strictly a US project

Manufacturing of the rad-hard Pentium will occur only in the US, and the products will be subject to strict US export controls. Intel cofounder Gordon Moore (now Chairman Emeritus), who also participated in the announcement, was instrumental in advancing the current agreement and also directed Intel to transfer the first microprocessor designs to Sandia more than 18 years ago.

(Moore co-founded Intel in 1968 and is widely known for "Moore’s Law," in which he predicted that the number of transistors that the industry would be able to place on a computer chip would double every year. In 1995, he updated that to once every two years. While originally intended as a rule of thumb in 1965, it has become a guiding principle for the industry to deliver ever- more-powerful chips at proportionate decreases in cost.)

Bob Eagan, VP of Physical Sciences and Components Div. 1000, noted that Sandia has been talking with Intel about this new agreement for nearly two years and that some Sandians have put in hundreds of hours to make it happen. "It’s been an extraordinary team effort, spearheaded by Bob Blewer [1705] to enact Al Romig’s [1700] strategic vision for rad-hard microelectronics," he said.

"Also, the executive management team, including President Paul Robinson, Executive VP John Crawford, and Senior VP Roger Hagengruber [5000], was very effective in helping put together this complex arrangement."

Al Romig, Director of Sandia’s Microelectronics S&T and Components Center 1700, notes that the agreement could extend to more advanced Intel technology, since it runs for 20 years. "If we are successful in redesigning the Pentium, it’s possible — but not guaranteed — that Intel could allow us to one day radiation-harden future generations of technology."

Al cautions, however, that Sandia must first get the regular (but relatively late model) Pentium chip hardened and working properly. And he notes that designing and manufacturing a rad-hard version of a chip is much more difficult that a commercial version. "The tiny feature sizes on the current-technology chips give us some very difficult challenges when it comes to radiation hardening."

Bob Blewer says negotiating the RHP project agreement was a huge Sandia team effort. Bob and Mike Knoll (1730) briefed the other federal agencies and obtained funding commitments from them. K.K. Ma (1735) and his department worked closely with Dennis Eilers (2304) in discussing design requirements with Intel. Dennis and K.K. will oversee the Pentium redesign effort. Greg Cone (11500), Angelo Salamone (4331), and Bob crafted the license agreement with Intel’s Scott Sibbett and an Intel attorney.

(Sibbett, Intel’s lead on the RHP agreement, knows Sandia well because he worked here for two years with Bob on a Sandia/ SEMATECH program.) Dave Myers (1703) provided background information for DOE headquarters. Harry Weaver (1720) will be responsible for RHP fabrication operations in the MDL.

Radiation hardening has been called both a science and an art. Many microelectronics experts worldwide have long considered this expertise to be synonymous with Sandia National Laboratories. (For more information on how radiation hardening is done, see the "backgrounder" at the end of the related news release on Sandia’s External Web site. The web page can be found at media/rhp.htm.)