Sandia LabNews

Hot is the new cool: High-temp electronics open new era of devices, applications in energy, weapons

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After years of tantalizing, just-out-of-reach promise, the era of high-temperature electronics has arrived — and Sandia has abundant opportunities to embrace and advance the use of this special class of electronics across diverse weapons and energy applications.

That’s the message Sandia engineer Randy Normann shared during a Technology Symposium last week with some 100 Sandians at the Steve Schiff Auditorium and (via video link) the Bldg 904 auditorium in California.

Randy, a Sandia leader for more than a decade in the development and application of high-temperature electronics, said, “This stuff is starting to become real; things are starting to happen.”

High-temperature electronics, as the name suggests, are a class of electronics that function effectively at temperatures that render conventional electronics ineffective and unreliable, that is, at temperatures ranging from 350 degrees F to 600 degrees F. Currently, high-temperature electronics come in two flavors: SOI — silicon-on-insulator (in which an insulating substrate protects and shields conventional silicon components) — and SiC — silicon carbide, with intrinsic high-temperature-tolerant characteristics. While both approaches have merits, the newer SiC-based electronics can be fabricated smaller, and, as Randy noted, smaller means faster and faster means more efficient.

“That sounds like a good combination,” Randy said.

(A still-newer high-temperature technology, based on gallium nitride, is not very far along in the development process.)

Randy noted that several commercial suppliers have aggressively jumped into the high-temp electronics market to grab a piece of the action. The big market driver at the moment — and it is a large one — is the well-drilling and downhole instrumentation market, but, as Randy made clear, there are a host of other applications that stand to benefit from the use of these new electronics.

Randy said high-temperature electronics is a win-win on both sides of the energy equation: On the supply side, it is an enabling technology for deeper oil and gas drilling, for geothermal drilling, and for use in specific application in extreme nuclear power plant environments.

It is also an enabling technology on the consumption side, with applications in aircraft, hybrid automobiles, and the power grid.

Benefit to oil patch is obvious

The interest in this technology from the oil-patch is obvious. As well-drilling goes beyond 35,000-foot depths with single offshore wells costing more than $100 million, there is almost a money-is-no-object demand for better, more reliable electronics that enable drill-head steering and better data acquisition.

Downhole instrumentation makers, Randy noted, are fiercely competitive, always seeking the kind of edge that high-temperature electronics can give them. “They fight to stay on the [downhole] tool the way NBA players fight to stay in the paint.”

The aircraft industry, too, is beginning to show extreme interest in high-temp electronics. A bit of background: for several decades, the philosopher’s stone of aircraft builders has been something they call “the more electric airplane.” The military is interested in the concept, but it is equally compelling to commercial plane makers.

Regarding the more electric aircraft, an analysis done for the Air Force Research Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio, indicates that replacing many of the hydraulic, pneumatic, mechanical, and electrical systems in an aircraft with reliable SiC-based electronic components would reduce weight, volume, (thus saving fuel) along with reducing required equipment and support personnel. The future SiC-based “more electric aircraft” can save the military billions of dollars.

Randy asserted that “high temperature” and “high reliability” go hand in hand; that is, high-temperature electronics are simply more reliable than their plain-vanilla silicon cousins. That’s why developers of some applications are interested in high-temperature electronics for use in locations where reliability (not temperature) is the critical factor.

Sandia, Randy said, can play a key role in the development, refinement, and deployment of high-temperature electronics. Their use is becoming pervasive in both weapons systems and energy, two of Sandia’s key mission areas.

Sandians, meanwhile, are actively involved in helping to mature GaN technology and are tackling the high-temperature electronics packaging issue. Packaging — that is, how a particular piece of electronics interfaces with an application — differentiates market winners from also-rans.