Ridgetop’s radiation-hardened micro-device being developed for particle accelerators
July 31, 2012 • David Wichner Arizona Daily Star
A Tucson-area company that has long specialized in predicting failure is prognosticating success with technology to help scientists unlock the secret life of atoms.
Ridgetop Group recently won two Small Business Innovation Research contracts worth $1 million each from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop analog-to-digital signal processor chips for particle accelerators used in research.
Particle accelerators are used by physicists to smash sub-atomic particles together to learn about the elemental building blocks of matter – sometimes discovering whole new classes of particles in the process.
Accelerators use electromagnetic fields to propel and guide charged particles and feature sophisticated detectors to analyze the sub-atomic wreckage.
But as you might imagine, such collisions happen so fast that it’s difficult to efficiently gather the resulting data.
Under the DOE Phase II SBIR contracts, Ridgetop is developing radiation-hardened computer chips that can capture the analog data produced by accelerator experiments and convert it to digital data at high speeds.
“There’s no off-the-shelf solution for this,” said Doug Goodman, Ridgetop’s founder and CEO. “We’re able to digitize the data at a very high rate.”
The DOE work, which stemmed from earlier, Phase I SBIR awards, is being led by Ridgetop senior engineer Esko Mikkola, who got his doctorate from the University of Arizona. Mikkola led an effort to develop a radiation-hardened, analog-to-digital converter for NASA under a separate SBIR contract awarded last year.
(A timely aside: Mikkola competed for his native Finland as a javelin thrower at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.)
The DOE contracts are just the latest projects for Ridgetop, which Goodman founded in 2000 to develop and market electronics prognostics and related technologies.
The company, which last year moved to a new building at 3580 W. Ina Road in Marana, continues to provide systems to test, monitor and predict the health and lifespan of sensitive electronics for customers including Boeing Co., Goodyear Aerospace and aircraft-engine maker Rolls-Royce.
Ridgetop employs about 35 people, including many UA grads. The company has been accredited as a “Trusted Integrated Circuit Supplier” by the Defense Department – required for some mission-critical programs – and earlier this year, the company achieved the rigorous AS9100C Quality Management System certification for the aircraft, space and defense industries.
Ridgetop offers prognostics technology that can be built into computer chips at their “die-level” fabrication stage – using silicon “canaries” to signal impending failure – as well as tools at the circuit-board, module and system level, all managed by its flagship Sentinel network monitoring and management software.
The systems can be customized for each customer’s needs, Goodman said.
“We’re the little guy, so we have to make our products modular enough so the customers can pick what they need,” he said.
Goodman said the company recently delivered a Sentinel Network system to Boeing in Mesa for use in monitoring power systems of the Apache attack helicopter.
Ridgetop’s other recent offerings include ProChek, an instrument that tests computer chips for failure by simulating such effects as heat, voltage shifts and radiation.
And radiation hardening – design of electronics to resist the damaging effects of radiation – is still part of Ridgetop’s repertoire.
Last fall, Ridgetop signed an agreement to become the exclusive worldwide distributor of TopAct, software developed by Raytheon Missile Systems to help design and analyze radiation shielding of electronics.
“Radiation eventually causes electronics to fail, and that could paralyze critical systems like railroads and airlines,” Goodman said.
Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4181.
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