Intel licenses Pentium to federal agencies

Intel Corp., the world's leading manufacturer of microprocessors, recently announced an unprecedented agreement with the Energy Department under which the government will use the Pentium processor design to develop radiation-hardened chips for spacecraft, satellites and other defense systems.

Under the licensing agreement, Sandia National Laboratories will design a version of the Pentium processor that can withstand the high levels of X-ray radiation present in the so-called Van Allen Belts, which are radiation belts that circle the globe.

Because many satellites and other space vehicles operate within the Van Allen Belts, it is necessary to shield, or "harden," them against the degrading effects of radiation [FCW, Aug. 17]. Satellites now operating within the Van Allen Belts rely on hardened chips that are manufactured specifically for that use. These chips are bigger, use more power and are more expensive to produce than typical commercial chips.

The agreement marks the first time anyone has tried to produce a radiation-hardened chip from a processor as small as Intel's Pentium processor.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said that with the agreement "a fundamental shift has indeed occurred" in the microprocessor field. According to Richardson, the teaming arrangement with Intel will save taxpayers millions of dollars, with the first prototype hitting the street within three years.

In addition, the deal is expected to benefit the commercial communications industry, which was hit hard this past summer by a pager disruption that may have been caused by the effects of radiation, Richardson said.

Under the agreement, the new chip design will be turned over to commercial manufacturers for production in the United States only. The partnership also includes NASA; the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which manages the nation's fleet of spy satellites; and the Air Force Research Laboratory.

"Providing a license to Sandia will aid in the implementation of processing power" in the space and national defense environments, said Craig Barrett, president and chief executive officer of Intel. "It's a wonderful example of how industry and government can work together."

According to John Crawford, executive vice president of Sandia, the new radiation-hardened version of the Pentium will be compatible with the commercial chips found in PCs and will run software currently developed for the Intel platform.

NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin said the government would never have the production capability to undertake such a project without Intel's help. To date, Intel has invested about $1 billion in research and development of the Pentium processor. Also, production deals with commercial foundries will allow large volumes of hardened chips to be produced for use by government and commercial industry.

According to Goldin, during the next five to 10 years NASA plans to send spacecraft into deep space to take soil samples from Mars and Europa, which is one of the moons orbiting Jupiter. Scientists believe Europa may contain a liquid ocean beneath its ice-packed landscape. "[The new chips are] going to improve the intelligence quotient on our [space] vehicles by a factor of 10," Goldin said.

Keith Hall, director of the NRO, said the agreement will ensure that the national leadership continues to have access to timely information from the Defense Department's fleet of spy satellites. The agreement will continue to advance the effort of building smaller, more capable satellites and reconnaissance systems at less cost to the taxpayers, Hall said.

Allen Thompson, a former CIA analyst and frequent contributor to studies conducted by the Federation of American Scientists, said it is not yet clear how much this teaming arrangement will help in the area of critical infrastructure protection. "The rad-hard Pentiums...may suffer some performance loss and will probably lag behind commercial nonhard processors by a generation or more," Thompson said. "It seems unlikely that commercial companies will use them unless forced to [do so] by the government or unless someone demonstrates the [need] by exploding a [nuclear] bomb above the atmosphere."

However, Bob Blewer, deputy director of microelectronics at Sandia, said selection of the Pentium technology is not a concern because that technology already provides the government with a hardened processor solution that is "eight to 10 times more powerful than [any hardened chips] available today." According to Blewer, the Pentium-based processor will run at 120 MHz and be capable of processing up to 200 million instructions per second. Blewer also expects the processor to be used by commercial satellite manufacturers because of its compatibility with the commercial Pentium architecture.

Blewer said Sandia's manufacturing capabilities are capable of producing chips using a 0.5-micron die size. Although the state of the art is considered to be around 0.25 microns, Sandia is migrating to that capability and will immediately seek industry partners to team with on the manufacturing requirements of the new hardened Pentiums. Blewer also said the current agreement lays the legal groundwork for possible future teaming arrangements with Intel.

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