You may not realize it but alien subatomic particles raining down from outer space are wreaking low-grade havoc on your smartphones, computers and other personal electronic devices.
When your computer crashes and you get the dreaded blue screen or your smartphone freezes and you have to go through the time-consuming process of a reset, most likely you blame the manufacturer: Microsoft or Apple or Samsung. In many instances, however, these operational failures may be caused by the impact of electrically charged particles generated by cosmic rays that originate outside the solar system.
“This is a really big problem, but it is mostly invisible to the public,” said Bharat Bhuva, professor of electrical engineering at Vanderbilt University, in a presentation on Friday, Feb. 17 at a session titled “Cloudy with a Chance of Solar Flares: Quantifying the Risk of Space Weather” at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.
When cosmic rays traveling at fractions of the speed of light strike the Earth’s atmosphere they create cascades of secondary particles including energetic neutrons, muons, pions and alpha particles. Millions of these particles strike your body each second. Despite their numbers, this subatomic torrent is imperceptible and has no known harmful effects on living organisms. However, a fraction of these particles carry enough energy to interfere with the operation of microelectronic circuitry. When they interact with integrated circuits, they may alter individual bits of data stored in memory. This is called a single-event upset or SEU.
Since it is difficult to know when and where these particles will strike and they do not do any physical damage, the malfunctions they cause are very difficult to characterize. As a result, determining the prevalence of SEUs is not easy or straightforward. “When you have a single bit flip, it could have any number of causes. It could be a software bug or a hardware flaw, for example. The only way you can determine that it is a single-event upset is by eliminating all the other possible causes,” Bhuva explained.
There have been a number of incidents that illustrate how serious the problem can be, Bhuva reported. For example, in 2003 in the town of Schaerbeek, Belgium a bit flip in an electronic voting machine added 4,096 extra votes to one candidate. The error was only detected because it gave the candidate more votes than were possible and it was traced to a single bit flip in the machine’s register. In 2008, the avionics system of a Qantus passenger jet flying from Singapore to Perth appeared to suffer from a single-event upset that caused the autopilot to disengage. As a result, the aircraft dove 690 feet in only 23 seconds, injuring about a third of the passengers seriously enough to cause the aircraft to divert to the nearest airstrip. In addition, there have been a number of unexplained glitches in airline computers – some of which experts feel must have been caused by SEUs – that have resulted in cancellation of hundreds of flights resulting in significant economic losses.
An analysis of SEU failure rates for consumer electronic devices performed by Ritesh Mastipuram and Edwin Wee at Cypress Semiconductor on a previous generation of technology shows how prevalent the problem may be. Their results were published in 2004 in Electronic Design News and provided the following estimates:
Bhuva is a member of Vanderbilt’s Radiation Effects Research Group, which was established in 1987 and is the largest academic program in the United States that studies the effects of radiation on electronic systems. The group’s primary focus was on military and space applications. Since 2001, the group has also been analyzing radiation effects on consumer electronics in the terrestrial environment. They have studied this phenomenon in the last eight generations of computer chip technology, including the current generation that uses 3D transistors (known as FinFET) that are only 16 nanometers in size. The 16-nanometer study was funded by a group of top microelectronics companies, including Altera, ARM, AMD, Broadcom, Cisco Systems, Marvell, MediaTek, Renesas, Qualcomm, Synopsys, and TSMC....MORE
- A simple cell phone with 500 kilobytes of memory should only have one potential error every 28 years.
- A router farm like those used by Internet providers with only 25 gigabytes of memory may experience one potential networking error that interrupts their operation every 17 hours.
- A person flying in an airplane at 35,000 feet (where radiation levels are considerably higher than they are at sea level) who is working on a laptop with 500 kilobytes of memory may experience one potential error every five hours.