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Intel in deal for radiation-proof chips

The company licenses its Pentium technology to the federal government for free to make a radiation-proof chip for satellites and other spacecraft.

Intel has licensed its Pentium chip technology to the federal government for free to make a radiation-proof Pentium chip that will bring greater processing power to spy satellites and other spacecraft.

Intel will provide the Energy Department's Sandia National Laboratories with a royalty-free license to the Pentium chip design, and Sandia personnel will make a new version of the chip that can survive the harsh radiation that afflicts electronic equipment in satellites and other spacecraft.

"Starting today, Sandia National Laboratories will receive, free of charge, a license to Intel's...Pentium processor," said Energy secretary Bill Richardson in a news conference today at Intel's headquarters in Santa Clara, California.

Licensing a proven processor design will save NASA millions of dollars, said NASA administrator Dan Goldin. "The money we would have spent in product development we are going to invest in long-term" projects, he said.

The "rad-hard" chip will help ensure that the United States will have access to spy satellite images of the entire world, added Keith Hall, director of the Defense Department's National Reconnaissance Office.

Sandia will develop a radiation-hardened version of the Pentium processor for satellites, space vehicles, and defense equipment, Richardson said. It's a difficult task to make electronic equipment such as computer chips immune to radiation, and the smaller the components, the more susceptible the equipment.

Although Intel licensed the Pentium technology to the government for free, the development of the chip will still cost $64 million over four years, Richardson said. The work will happen at Sandia, a DOE laboratory that specializes in nuclear weapons research and that has performed microelectronics work for chips in nuclear weapons, satellites, and spacecraft such as NASA's Galileo mission to Jupiter.

The radiation-proof Pentium will have "pin-to-pin compatibility" with existing Pentium chips, said John Crawford, executive vice president of Sandia.

The new chip will have a feature size of 0.35 microns--about twice as coarse as Intel's latest designs, but the smallest yet for a radiation-hardened design. Shrinking that measurement reduces the power consumption of the chip, an important consideration for power-starved spacecraft.

Asked if the government considered using a RISC design, as RISC chips typically have lower power consumption, Goldin said: "To go off on a tangent and not stick with the main line of computing I think would be a terrible mistake."

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network, publisher of News.com.