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Media Corner
26 January 2016

Developing the chips that will speak to ITER sensors

A sample of the electronic chips stemming from the collaboration between F4E, Oxford Technologies Ltd (OTL) and the Katholieke Universiteit of Leuven (KU Leuven).

Remote handling refers to the high-tech systems that will help us maintain and repair the ITER machine. The space where the bulky equipment will operate is limited, and the exposure of some of the components to radioactivity, prohibit any manual intervention inside the vessel. Therefore, myriads of interconnected tools, manipulators and cranes will have to be routinely operated and inspected remotely with millimetric accuracy.

The information on the maintenance works performed will be supplied by sensors scattered in the machine, which will help us collect data on the temperature, pressure and position of all equipment. If the above context seems like a challenge here are two additional parameters to take things up a notch: first, how to make sensors speak the same language and second, how to decrease the volumes of polymeric cables connecting the sensors given the space limitations in the machine?

F4E, Oxford Technologies Ltd (OTL) and the Katholieke Universiteit of Leuven (KU Leuven) have been collaborating for nearly five years to solve this conundrum. The answer lies on the development of electronic chips that will be able to sustain the radiation environment; convert the analogue data picked up by sensors to a digital format and transmit the information through a single wire. A full-fledged design of a chip using Taiwanese technology has been designed and irradiated at the SCK-CEN facility. The results are promising and the know-how is expected to have an impact towards the development of other electronics to be deployed in the ITER device. In fact, the spare chips delivered through this contract will be used for demonstration activities to illustrate how they work in practice. The industrial potential of the chips is also ensured thanks to a cooperation agreement signed between F4E and KU Leuven, granting the university the possibility to make use of the foreground knowledge in future commercial activities.

This breakthrough has pushed the R&D envelope further and has simultaneously raised questions about the fabrication of electronics able to sustain the ITER environment. A newly created Nuclear Integration Unit in ITER International Organization (ITER IO) will develop a procurement policy which will specify how to qualify electronics equipment to be used in the machine. Europe is expected to make a valuable contribution on the basis of the first results stemming from this fruitful collaboration.

F4E members of staff responsible for this milestone which may lead to a spin-off (From left to right): S. Bernal-Blanco, M. Van Uffelen, L. Mont-Casellas, C. Casteras-Roman).