• 01 Overview
  • 02 How It Works
  • 03 PIF: Proton Irradiation Facility 
  • 04 NIF: Neutron Irradiation Facility 
  • 05 Research Track Record

01 Overview

TRIUMF’s Proton Irradiation Facility (PIF) and Neutron Irradiation Facility (NIF) are among the world’s premier facilities for testing the radiation effects of protons and neutrons on electronic equipment. 

Used annually by about nearly 50 companies, national laboratories and universities from a dozen countries, PIF & NIF enable these clients to evaluate whether their electronic equipment can stand up to real-world conditions. 

Every second, high-energy cosmic rays from the Sun and distant, long-ago stellar explosions bombard the Earth’s atmosphere. As a result, electronic components in equipment from satellites to airplanes to smartphones experience potentially damaging protons and neutrons. These can cause a dropped mobile phone call, a computer server error or even a satellite or aircraft malfunction. 

PIF & NIF deliver protons and neutrons with energies tuned to match the range of energies found in the natural environment, whether Earth orbit, airplane altitude, or ground-level. These protons and neutrons are delivered at a much higher rate than occur naturally, enabling users to test samples in a commercially practical timeframe. For example, the radiation effects on a computer chip of a seven-year satellite mission can be simulated in just 30 minutes.  

PIF & NIF operate on a fee-for-service basis. NIF serves a wide range of Canadian and international avionics, microelectronics and communications technology companies, including Boeing and Cisco Systems. PIF’s users include Canadian space-technology companies, NASA, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), satellite manufacturer MDA Corporation, and others. See a list of recent PIF & NIF users here. 

02 How It Works

Leading electronics companies, universities and national laboratories worldwide rely on PIF & NIF for their unique ability to deliver high-quality proton and neutron beams to precisely and rapidly simulate the radiation environments of space, aircraft altitude, or ground level.  

The increasing miniaturization of electronic components makes space-radiation testing an increasingly critical performance reliability issue for equipment from satellites to smartphones. 

As electronic devices decrease in size and pack more bits into a memory, they can operate with less voltage. This makes them more susceptible to proton and neutron damage: when a proton or neutron hits the electronics depositing its energy, there’s a greater chance this will “flip a bit” or turn a digital 0 into a 1, or vice-versa. 

03 PIF: Proton Irradiation Facility 

The radiation environment in space is complex, varying with both location and time, and satellites and other space vehicles have different amounts and types of radiation shielding. Thus, engineers and scientists testing electronic components require proton energies from a few MeV up to several hundred MeV. This makes TRIUMF’s 520 MeV cyclotron an ideal proton source, with the ability to deliver protons over a wide range of energies. 

Located in TRIUMF’s Meson Hall, PIF uses two dedicated beam lines. BL2C1 (Beam Line 2C1) provides proton test energies from 5 MeV to 105 MeV.  BL1B (Beam Line 1B) delivers low intensity protons with higher test energies of either 355 MeV or 480 MeV. The latter is the only accessible beam line in the world able to produce this range in energy and intensity of protons. 

Both beam lines deliver protons to the same PIF testing location. Here, clients use laser-guided positioning to mount their electronics for testing on a device-mounting plate. A secondary control room is used to monitor the beam line characteristics while test electronics are irradiated.

04 NIF: Neutron Irradiation Facility 

In the Earth’s atmosphere, cosmic ray high-energy protons smash into nitrogen and oxygen nuclei, breaking them into smaller nuclei and releasing neutrons, a process called cosmic ray spallation. These cosmogenic neutrons have much higher energy than neutrons produced by a nuclear reactor, and thus require an accelerator such as TRIUMF’s main cyclotron for production.  

The range of neutron energies, or the spectrum, produced by NIF is very similar to the natural atmospheric spectrum, and thus ideal for electronics testing. The natural rate, or flux, of cosmogenic neutrons varies with altitude.  

The process for simulating the effect of cosmogenic neutrons on an electronic component begins with the firing of a high-energy proton beam (beamline BL1A) into an aluminum block in the Meson Hall. The proton impact induces spallation reactions, spewing out neutrons, which are delivered to the heavily shielded testing region at the end of the Meson Hall.  

The device to be tested is mounted on a moveable aluminium plate. The plate and attached electronics are lowered by cable down a five-metre-long vertical shaft that penetrates the radiation shielding, into the neutron beam. The neutron flux is remotely monitored, and once the desired dose is reached the device is lifted out of the beam. In addition to BL1A, neutron testing can also be performed on either BL2C1 or BL1B by converting the incoming protons into neutrons. These beamlines enable the irradiation of large power supplies, server systems, and a variety of other devices. 

Similarly, this set-up enables users to easily vary the amount of time the device spends in the beam in order to mimic the appropriate real-world conditions. At an airline cruising altitude of 12 kilometres, there are about 6000 neutrons per square centimetre per hour. However, at ground level in Vancouver or Halifax, the number would be about 12 to 15 neutrons per square centimetre per hour.  

05 Research Track Record

A new dosimeter to improve characterization of TRIUMF proton and neutron beams

A new dosimeter to improve characterization of TRIUMF proton and neutron beams: With collaborators at the University of Waterloo, TRIUMF's PIF & NIF group has invented a new dosimeter that's proven incredibly valuable at characterizing the proton and neutron test beams available at TRIUMF’s irradiation facilities. Neutron radiation effects testing, usually for single event effects (SEE), uses accelerator produced neutrons with a broad energy spectrum to simulate the cosmic ray or terrestrial spectrum at ground level or aircraft altitudes. The energies that are of interest are above 1 MeV, with most testing to date using the fluence of > 10 MeV neutrons for determining acceleration factors between accelerator neutrons and the terrestrial environment. The new PIF-NIF dosimeter is based on an array of SRAMs (Static Random-Access Memories) with thirty, 16 Mbit Cypress SRAMs arranged in a close-packed 5x6 array to cover an area of 36 x 36 mm. This SRAM has several key features. It does not latch-up, and the ECC can be removed and the single event upset (SEU) cross section with ECC removed is large enough at about 10-13 cm2 per bit for good sensitivity. The total error rate at a flux of 106 protons or neutrons/cm2/s is about 2500-3000/minute so good statistics can be achieved very quickly even at much lower fluxes. The new dosimeter will allow for improvements to TRIUMF’s testing facilities and methods benefiting both scientific researchers and industrial engineers in their understanding and quantification of radiation effects.