National Science Foundation Awards Innovation Grant to Local Business
U of A-affiliated start-up to develop sensors for extreme sitesMonday, January 28, 2013
Matt Francis (left) and Jim Holmes of Ozark Integrated Circuits, pose in their office at the Arkansas Research and Technology Park in Fayetteville. Photo by Russell Cothren, University of Arkansas
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – The National Science Foundation has awarded a nearly $150,000 grant to Ozark Integrated Circuits to investigate the feasibility of utilizing silicon-carbide-based electronics to operate in extreme conditions such as those found in nuclear reactors, jet engines or spacecraft.
Ozark Integrated Circuits Inc., a Genesis Technology Incubator client at the University of Arkansas, is addressing one of the key problems in high-temperature electronics: high-voltage isolation.
“In high-temperature, high-voltage electronics, there aren’t efficient ways to isolate signals,” said Matt Francis, president and chief executive officer of the start-up company at the Arkansas Research and Technology Park in Fayetteville. “If your circuit is running extremely hot there is too much noise, which disrupts the signals. Integrated circuit technology is well suited to extreme environments. That’s our specialty. We make a custom circuit for a custom application.”
Francis is also a research associate in the College of Engineering. He holds bachelor’s degrees in engineering and physics and master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering, all from the U of A.
Employing a photographic process on a microscopic level, Ozark Integrated Circuits is developing optoelectronic isolation techniques that can be integrated into silicon carbide sensors. Optoelectronics are electronic devices that source, detect and control the use of visible light, or in this case, invisible forms of radiation such as gamma rays, X-rays, ultraviolet and infrared.
Jim Holmes, integrated circuit technologist for the company, said the circuits are made in layers in a microscopic process.
“We use computer-aided design to make sure that our designs are correct,” Holmes said. “We have invested considerable sweat equity in our tooling capability to make sure that our circuits are right before we send the design to the fabrication facility.”
Silicon carbide electronics represent the next generation for high-temperature, high-voltage electronics capable of operating at conditions beyond 572 degrees Fahrenheit. Extreme environments also include sites where electrical components face either extremely low temperatures — down to minus 193 degrees Fahrenheit — or intense radiation such as is found in space or nuclear reactors.
“As these spacecraft are flying through space, over time there’s an accumulation of ionizing radiation that can damage the circuit if it is not properly shielded or designed to withstand the abuse,” he said. “It’s like getting too many X-rays. After awhile your body just can’t take it. In the same way, a circuit can slowly go bad and then fail. Another kind of problem is a spurious event from a high-energy particle. When the particle hits the circuit it creates a spike of electric current that can cause the circuit to seize. This kind of problem can be overcome by a system reset, but can be catastrophic if it happens during a critical part of a mission.
“We are designing circuits well beyond military requirements so that they continue operate in conditions at more than 400 degrees Fahrenheit and as cold as liquid nitrogen [minus 346 degrees] or liquid helium [minus 452].”
The National Science Foundation Phase I grant came through the Small Business Innovation Research Program, which allows federal agencies to stimulate technological innovation in the private sector by strengthening small businesses that meet federal research and development needs. The program also is intended to increase the commercial application of federally supported research results.
“This grant ensures that Ozark Integrated Circuits will remain on the cutting edge of high-temperature electronics and the work being done there is indicative of the dynamic research environment at the Arkansas Research and Technology Park,” said Phil Stafford, president of the University of Arkansas Technology Development Foundation, which manages the park.
In 2011, the same year it was founded, Ozark Integrated Circuits received a nearly $125,000 grant from NASA, also through the Small Business Innovation Research Program. That award was specifically for communications circuitry in space environments.
Matt Francis, president and CEO
Ozark Integrated Circuits
Chris Branam, reseach communications writer/editor
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