Powering up computing capacity

When Matthew Marinella left his research position at Sandia National Laboratories after 11 years to become an associate professor of electrical engineering at Arizona State University, he did not abandon all of his Sandia connections.

Since joining the faculty in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, Marinella has continued to collaborate with Sandia on his research. He is currently the principal investigator on a project to increase computing power through greater energy efficiency for radiation shielded electronics as part of Sandia’s Grand Challenge scientific research series. The work at ASU builds on the earlier electronics research that Marinella conducted at Sandia.

Radiation curing is a process that increases the durability of electronics used in high radiation environments such as outer space. This allows critical computer components, such as those in a spacecraft, to remain functional where normal electronics would fail when exposed to radiation.

Sandia’s Grand Challenge projects are considered high-risk, high-reward and funded for three years.

“I just started at ASU in January 2022 and I’m from Sandia, where we had been working towards a very large project like this for a number of years,” says Marinella. “Finally it got funded at Sandia, so obviously we’re hoping this work will lead to bigger projects.”

Also participating in this Grand Challenge research are collaborators from the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Michigan. Rick McCormick, senior project management sponsor and strategic research client at Sandia, says the researchers from these institutions were brought on board for their expertise in emerging analog computing devices, which are a key element of the project.

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To increase computational efficiency for radiation-hardened electronics beyond traditional possibilities, the research team is developing new analog devices using resistive random access memory (ReRAM) and electrochemical random access memory (ECRAM).

These analog devices are combined into arrays that are placed on complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor or CMOS computer chips manufactured by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation.

Profile photo of Matthew Marinella

Matthew Marinella

Once developed, these devices would then be used in high-radiation environments both in space and on Earth.

“If you’ve seen Chernobyl or something like that, you have robots trying to get to a place you don’t want to put people in,” says Marinella.

As another example of what the increased processing efficiency could do, he cites the camera on a satellite. Satellite capabilities are limited by parameters such as size, weight, and battery power. Making the on-board computer more efficient, for example with the technology Marinella’s team is developing, would free up energy for other tasks, including increasing the resolution of photos the satellites take.

According to Marinella, the Department of Defense is also interested in radiation-hard computing technology, including for applications such as image processing with edge computing. With edge computing, data is processed in a computer system shortly after it is captured, resulting in fewer large raw data files to transfer and faster file sharing.

While the chips are initially intended for radiation-protected applications, Marinella sees the arrays of efficiency-enhancing memory chips in combination with conventional semiconductors as ubiquitous in consumer electronics.

“That would be the chip in your cell phone, autonomous vehicles and cloud computing systems,” he says.

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According to Sapan Agarwal, the lead researcher for Sandia’s side of this Grand Challenge project, integrating the storage devices with conventional chips will push the boundaries beyond what is possible with conventional chips alone. The processing efficiency of traditional CMOS chips is limited by the size and voltage of their transistors.

Agarwal says one of the key factors slowing down computing on traditional chips is the need to transfer data between separate elements for storage and processing. By integrating the team’s new ReRAM and ECRAM devices with CMOS chips, processing and storage can take place in one place.

According to Agarwal, this will result in 100 times more computing power per watt than is currently possible.

McCormick notes that the team will experiment with different analog computing devices, which will help them determine which ones work best for their applications.

Marinella is also working on a separate project with Hugh Barnaby, an electrical engineering professor at ASU, to understand radiation effects on transistors, known as fin field effect transistors, or FinFETs, which are more efficient than older standard node transistors. Although this project is also a Sandia collaboration and is funded by Sandia, it differs from Marinella’s work on the Grand Challenge program, which focuses on integrating CMOS chips with analog device arrays.

Although the Grand Challenge project combining CMOS chips with analog devices will not use FinFETs for research, Marinella’s future goal is to use the FinFETs as transistors for the CMOS chips and the integrated analog arrays, if the FinFETs prove to be good enough for extreme radiation tolerable environments. The more efficient combination would unleash even more radiation-protected computing power, making the system even more efficient than the current Grand Challenge CMOS and analog memory integration project is investigating.

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McCormick says that Marinella, who works at ASU and left Sandia with a great record of innovation and postdoctoral training, has put Sandia in a great position to collaborate with the university for research opportunities.

“Matt has already put us in touch with other top-class professors at ASU and has maintained a close working relationship with Sandia,” he says. “We look forward to continuing to work with him and training the next generation of Sandia researchers.”

Agarwal agrees that partnering with ASU is a great opportunity to expand Sandia’s research capabilities.

“The ASU team is a central part of our broader research efforts, helping to develop key technologies and collaborating with us on our broader strategy for new microelectronics,” he says. “At ASU, Matt continues to be a key employee.”