X-Rayted Files: Radiation’s Effects on Electronic Components

Whether it’s from naturally occurring sources or induced by modern human ingenuity, electronic components, like everything else, are subject to regular exposure to radiation. It is vital to understand the various sources of radiation exposure as well as their likely effects on today’s microelectronics and the devices they make possible. This is especially true of components that support products demanding high reliability, like those in medical devices, automobiles, and the airplane I’m flying on while writing this. 

As a manufacturer of industrial X-ray inspection systems, it’s a familiar question: “Is radiation from the X-ray machine going to harm the electronic components in my widget?” Not to be coy, but the answer is a familiar refrain as well: “It depends.” The more useful answer is actually, “It is highly unlikely.” But again, for high reliability products, the answer has to be precise, and quantified to the best degree possible. I can’t say to the maker of a potentially lifesaving medical device, “X-raying this probably won’t hurt anything.” So, let’s take a look at common sources of radiation exposure, and the potential effects it may have on electronic components, so we can better understand the risks.

First, radiation is inescapable. Background radiation from the things that surround us varies widely. The bulk of it come from trace amounts of naturally occurring radionuclides like uranium. Building materials, like cement, for example, can have higher concentrations of such elements, and thus give off higher levels of background radiation. Cosmic radiation is another inescapable source of naturally occurring radiation. Italy’s Gran Sasso National Laboratory is a renowned playground for particle physicists because of its relative absence of cosmic-ray noise. Everything, including our electronic devices, is subject to this radiation exposure. Cosmic radiation can be responsible for one of the more interesting forms of damage to electronics in what is known as single event upsets (SEU), in which bits stored in electronic circuitry can be flipped. The damage, while temporary, can be very disruptive and sometimes dangerous. “Can radiation damage electronic components?” Yes, it can.

In addition, there are a number of manmade sources of radiation exposure. From nuclear devices to medical and dental X-rays, there are many products of modernity that contribute to background radiation or common radiation exposure. The flight I’m on right now is increasing my relative exposure to cosmic radiation, probably to the tune of about 3.5 millirem (mrem), a similar dose to my last chest X-ray. The laptop computer I’m working on is getting the same dose. This same laptop also got an extra dose when it went through airport security. Likewise, it probably experienced a number of radiation exposures, some quite high, as part of a shipment from its manufacturer to distributor, as virtually all cargo are subject to X-ray inspection by customs agencies and commercial parcel services. Per the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP), the typical yearly radiation dose per person in the U.S. is 620 mrem (6.2 millisieverts), but for many of the products we use, that number can be much higher.

It is true that the vast majority of electronic components and the consumer electronics are unaffected by common sources of radiation exposure. Even those subjected to modern cargo inspection system, with X-ray source power as high as 9MeV, come out unscathed. It’s one reason we are usually comfortable saying, when asked about our industrial inspection system (these rarely have source power higher that 130kV), “Nothing to worry about.” But with something as demanding as a medical device, or an engine control module, then that answer may not suffice. For a definitive answer we just need to know some of the parameters of any desired inspection. What’s critical in calculating the dose a sample will receive during inspection are the energy and volume of the X-ray photons, the duration of the inspection, as well as the distance between the sample being inspected and the X-ray source. Because industrial systems typically operate at relatively low energy for inspection of electronics, and inspection time is less than a second in many cases (especially for automated systems), a typical total dose is about 35mR, exceedingly far below that which could potentially harm even the most sensitive electronic devices. But if inspection required significantly higher power, and far longer duration to complete evaluation, we can and should calculate the total dose to understand its potential to damage sensitive parts. 

It isn’t exactly rocket science, brain surgery, or even rocket surgery, but it is physics. And the good news is that radiation exposure of electronic components can be calculated, planned for, and kept to an absolute minimum based on specific need. When it comes to typical industrial X-ray inspection and the question of radiation exposure, I’m most often tempted to say, “It’s so low, it’s irrelevant.” But, like our ever-evolving microelectronics, it’s actually more complicated than that, and absolutely worth considering and even quantifying. I hope this has helped.  Oh, and just for fun (especially with kids), if you want to witness cosmic radiation for yourself, try building a simple cloud chamber. 

Dr. Bill Cardoso is CEO of Creative Electron. 

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2021

X-Rayted Files: Radiation’s Effects on Electronic Components

09-22-2021

Whether it’s from naturally occurring sources or induced by modern human ingenuity, electronic components, like everything else, are subject to regular exposure to radiation. It is vital to understand the various sources of radiation exposure as well as their likely effects on today’s microelectronics and the devices they make possible.

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X-Rayted Files: Semiconductor Shortage—Avoiding Counterfeit Components

08-11-2021

From bicycles to sundries, from consumer electronics to automobiles, shortages and supply chain issues have hampered an otherwise strong economic recovery much of the world emerge from the pandemic. Among these challenges, none has received more media attention than the semiconductor shortage.

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X-Rayted Files: Tales from the Files of Lithium-ion Batteries

06-23-2021

Lithium-ion batteries have, in part, enabled the continued miniaturization of the devices we love. They have also played an important role in making practical electric cars a reality. But like other approaches high density energy storage, they do present risks.

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X-Rayted Files: Genius, Evil, or Evil Genius?

05-20-2021

Apple dominates its market in many ways. Is this genius for the consumer, or does it effectively rule out any competition? Columnist Bill Cardoso debates its merits—and disadvantages for other players.

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X-Rayted Files: Crafting Our ‘Next Normal’

04-20-2021

As profound an experience as it has been to lead an enterprise through the pandemic, what’s to come may make every bit as much of an impression. So many things that we took for granted as practices and behaviors etched in stone, were interrupted, suspended, or eliminated entirely. As we exit the tunnel into the light of the post-pandemic, we will be challenged collectively in crafting the next normal.

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X-Rayted Files: The Bright Side of the Chip Shortage

03-17-2021

In his previous column, “The Dark Side of the Chip Shortage: Counterfeits,” Bill addressed one of unanticipated outcome of the crisis: the shortage of electronic components and predictable wave of counterfeit components likely to flood the market. Combating that tsunami of fakes may also accelerate the adoption of advanced techniques for detecting counterfeit components.

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X-Rayted Files: The Dark Side of the Chip Shortage—Counterfeits

02-17-2021

It’s February 2021, and as the world slowly recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, another problem plagues the global economy: the electronic component shortage. What some economists have deemed to be a decade of immense prosperity and growth, the “roaring ‘20s” started with a hiccup.

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X-Rayted Files: The Year of 2020 Vision

01-20-2021

What else can we say about 2020 that hasn’t been said? We have so much to reflect on, both to mourn and to be thankful for. The global pandemic has made an indelible mark on us all, and we, like everyone else, are changed forever. With the year behind us, and light at the end of the tunnel, we take a moment to look back as well as look forward.

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2020

X-Rayted Files: Solving for the Limits of Human Visual Inspection

12-16-2020

Because a key element of quality control in manufacturing is still good old-fashioned visual inspection, it’s important to understand the ability of operators to sustain their focus and what we can do to support their success. And while the fallibility of human inspection presents challenges, Dr. Bill Cardoso details how there are many ways to address shortcomings.

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X-Rayted Files: iPhone Transparency—A Window Into SMT

11-17-2020

Though we don’t do them just for fun, teardowns are fun, but they have also taught us more than we could have imagined. Modern teardowns provide critical insights into the nature and construction of these devices. As an example, Dr. Bill Cardoso details the history of the iPhone as told through X-ray.

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X-Rayted Files: A Century of X-Rays in the Automotive Industry, Part 2

10-28-2020

As one of the main users of X-ray inspection, the automotive industry has been one of the main drivers for the development of higher power and higher resolution X-ray imaging systems. Dr. Bill Cardoso continues with Part 2 of this column series.

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X-Rayted Files: A Century of X-Rays in the Automotive Industry, Part 1

09-29-2020

If you have read any of Bill Cardoso's previous columns, you know that he is passionate about X-rays, cars, and electronics. In this column series, he talks about some of his idols, including Curie, Roentgen, Marconi, Galvin, and Ford.

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X-Rayted Files: Is Quality Really Priceless?

08-19-2020

In a day and age when we can learn virtually anything online, manufacturers still manage to be opaque about pricing, especially when it comes to specialty equipment. Some may say, “Quality is priceless,” but Bill Cardoso explains how it isn't.

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X-Rayted Files: Marching Toward 2021, 20 Miles at a Time

07-29-2020

We’re only at the halfway mark, and 2020 has been a real challenge. Our best-laid plans have been cast in doubt by the COVID-19 pandemic. During this transformational time, Dr. Bill Cardoso looks back a century for a bit of inspiration from Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.

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X-Rayted Files: E-Commerce Boom Fraught With Risk—X-Rays to the Rescue

06-17-2020

It’s not news that online sales are increasing dramatically during this global pandemic. However, with increased sales comes the increased risk of return fraud and abuse. Dr. Bill Cardoso explains how X-ray can help detect dummy and counterfeit merchandise.

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X-Rayted Files: Why Do We Break Stuff? Intelligence From Teardowns

05-20-2020

The impulse to break a new gadget to "see what's inside" and to “learn how it works” is often the first sign someone will become an engineer. We’ve learned a lot in over a decade of teardowns, which have helped us to understand how the SMT industry has changed over these years. Bill Cardoso investigates.

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X-Rayted Inspection: Manufacturing in the Eye of a Pandemic

04-08-2020

Dr. Bill Cardoso usually writes about X-ray inspection, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and how it all connects to Industry 4.0. This month, however, he shifts gears and shares some of the things Creative Electron has been doing during the COVID-19 outbreak.

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X-rayted Files: X-ray and AI—A Match Made In Heaven, Part 2

03-18-2020

In Part 1, Dr. Bill Cardoso covered the basics of the relationship between X-ray inspection and artificial intelligence (AI). In Part 2, Cardoso takes a step forward to cover some of the practical ways we use AI to improve the efficiency of our X-ray inspections.

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2019

X-Rayted Files: Will Radiation Damage My Electronic Component?

12-17-2019

Before I start talking about radiation damage on electronic components, let me warn you: if you are looking for a simple “yes” or “no” answer to the question, "Will radiation damage my electronic component?" stop reading now. Things will get complicated. You may feel like I did not answer the question at all, and you would be correct. There are whole conferences dedicated to this question (check IEEE’s Nuclear and Space Radiation Effects Conference), so the goal of this column is to give you some background to guide you to the right answer for your specific situation. Ultimately, the best way is to ask an expert.

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X-Rayted Files: The Currency of Technology

11-11-2019

In the ever-moving tide of technology, the need to innovate requires a constant shift in vision, and this need has never been more evident than in PCB manufacturing. In fact, innovation has become so valuable that PCBs are quickly becoming the currency of technology. Dr. Bill Cardoso explains.

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X-Rayted Files: The Risk of Installing Counterfeit Parts

10-02-2019

In high-tech manufacturing, the use of sub-standard components can be catastrophic. There is no greater need for quality control than in PCBs, as they are only as good as the components installed on them; therein lies the problem. Some components shipped to manufacturers are counterfeit!

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X-Rayted Files: Just Because You Can't See the Problem Doesn't Mean It's Not There!

08-20-2019

In this new column, Dr. Bill Cardoso will cover everything related to X-rays from cool historical facts to the latest in technological advancements, starting with the discovery of X-rays in 1895.

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