AF, small business developing critical processors for satellites

  • Published
  • By 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and a small business partner are developing technologies that they expect will enable successful use of high-power processors that operate on satellites with funding from the Air Force Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.

A next-generation, micro-chip carrier is currently in development by ThermAvant Technologies LLC, located in Columbia, Missouri, and is already being tested by manufacturers of several major commercial and military satellite and aerospace systems. This innovative cooling solution will reduce the temperature of high-power satellite components to levels manageable by the spacecraft's thermal control system. This is advantageous, because it improves processor reliability while providing the opportunity to increase on-board processing.

"If successful, this technology solution could be headed for every major DOD space system, where it will replace the current, state-of-the-art technology developed during SBIR programs 10 years ago," said Dr. Greg Spanjers, the chief scientist of AFRL's Space Vehicles Directorate.

AFRL and ThermAvant began researching the application of this technology as a result of an Air Force SBIR solicitation. The project called for reliable, high-conductivity heat spreaders; ThermAvant demonstrated the improved heat transfer properties of different structural materials including aluminum, titanium, copper and copper molybdenum composite embedded with the Oscillating Heat Pipe (OHP) technology. OHP-embedded chip carriers and heat spreaders will be used to transport heat dissipated by micro-chips to the spacecraft's larger thermal control systems.

This is a critical technology for space-based systems that will enable the deployment of higher temperature and power processors aboard satellite payloads. It can be used in both commercial and military satellite applications, as well as any high-performance land-based electronics. ThermAvant successfully investigated the thermal performance tradeoffs of different fabrication processes for making OHP heat spreaders under a range of simulated real-world operating conditions.

During the testing, ThermAvant's prototype OHP-embedded heat spreaders provided an 84 percent reduction in the temperature rise across the heat spreader, when compared to current state-of-the-art technologies. This reduction in temperature provides many benefits for the Air Force, but the most striking is the ability to increase the on-board computing power.

Current satellite processors are running at 10 percent of their operating capability as a result of insufficient thermal management. Reducing the junction temperature allows for increased processing capability, up to 10 times more, and increases the expected lifetime of the on-board chips.

Additionally, the advanced manufacturing techniques developed under this effort will allow this higher performing technology solution to be manufactured at a lower price point than competing technologies.

The company's improved methods for making OHP-based products has already demonstrated commercial promise to both space- and ground-based thermal management applications for electronics. During the first year of this Phase II SBIR, ThermAvant transitioned OHP-based thermal management solutions to four major defense contractors for six applications on platforms ranging from Army tanks to Navy ships and Air Force aircraft and spacecraft. In these applications, the OHP-based thermal management solution performs 5 to 50 percent better than the status quo and is, on average, approximately 20 percent less expensive.

The Air Force SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs are mission-oriented programs that integrate the needs and requirements of the Air Force through research and development topics that have military and commercial potential. The SBIR program was established by Congress in 1982 to fund research and development through small businesses of 500 or fewer employees.

The Air Force SBIR and STTR programs provide more than $300 million in funding for research and development activities by small businesses annually. With this budget, the Air Force funds research from the early stages of concept development until it transitions to military or commercial use.