New Los Alamos technology detects thermal neutrons in aircraft – Los Alamos reporter

A new technology called TinMan is providing the aerospace industry with the information they need about the atmospheric environment. Photo courtesy Dreamstime


A new technology developed by Los Alamos National Laboratory and Honeywell is providing the aerospace industry with the information they need about the atmospheric environment. The device called TinMan has quantified the number of thermal neutrons, particles that are produced by natural solar radiation. This gives the aerospace industry a standard against which to evaluate their semiconductor parts.

“Few studies have been done on the effects of thermal neutrons on airplanes and no one has been able to determine their intensity in airplanes,” said Stephen Wender, instrument scientist at Los Alamos Neutron Science Center. “It was only recently assumed that they have an impact on the reliability of components.”

The world has known these atmospheric radiation influences since the 1960s. When solar radiation hits the atmosphere, particles, including protons, electrons, and heavy ions, are hurled toward the earth, and high-energy neutrons are also produced. However, unlike protons and electrons, neutrons are not charged and can pass through the atmosphere and solid objects such as the metal shell of an airplane. When these neutrons hit a microprocessor, the energy it deposits in the system can lead to a single effect event that can compromise the reliability of the components.

Thermal neutrons are created after high-energy neutrons collide with materials and lose energy. The result is a particle with less energy: a thermal neutron. The tens of thousands of gallons of fuel stored on airplanes are a very effective producer of thermal neutrons. While the high energy neutron environment has long been quantified, since the thermal environment is dependent on the environment, it has not been fully measured at the higher altitudes of an aircraft.

Recently, thermal neutrons have been studied after the semiconductor industry, which makes semiconductor electronics, started using a metal called boron in their parts. Boron-10 is a borosotope and is known to be sensitive to thermal neutrons.

“Measuring the thermal neutron environment at altitude provides important information for the aerospace industry,” said Laura Dominik, a Honeywell employee. “We are delighted that this joint project over more than a dozen flights has now provided the most accurate measurement of this type of particle in aircraft to date.”

TinMan is a small device, slightly thicker than a laptop, and the only thermal neutron detector designed for use on airplanes. The aim was to ride on a number of flights, constantly measuring changes in thermal neutron intensity, which can vary with the height and width of the aircraft. These measurements would then be used to define the thermal neutron environment in aircraft, a necessary step in evaluating semiconductor electronics with boron-10.

In the past two years, TinMan has accompanied 14 NASA flights. During these trips, TinMan was able to track the intensity of thermal neutrons during various changes in altitude and latitude on flights in the United States and Europe. TinMan defined the environment around the intensity of thermal neutrons. This data has now been distributed to international agencies and included in reports to ensure that boron-10 electronics can be properly assessed for use on aircraft.

“We are very pleased to be able to offer a comprehensive range of measurements of the thermal neutron environment in aircraft,” said Wender. “As manufacturing changes continue, this information will become an important foundation for evaluating semiconductor parts for the entire aerospace industry.”

Via the Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos National Laboratory, a multidisciplinary research facility engaged in strategic science on behalf of national security, is administered by Triad, a public, national security science organization that is equally owned by its three founding members: Battelle Memorial Institute (Battelle), Texas A&M University System (TAMUS), and the University of California (UC) regents for the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.

Los Alamos enhances national security by maintaining the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear facility, developing technologies to reduce the threat of weapons of mass destruction, and solving problems related to energy, environment, infrastructure, health, and global security concerns.

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