July 1963 Electronics World
Table of Contents
People old and young
enjoy waxing nostalgic about and learning some of the history of early electronics. Electronics World
was published from May 1959 through December 1971. See all
Electronics World articles.
The early 1960s was the era of
nuclear apocalypse, the
Bay of Pigs fiasco,
school children practicing duck
and cover tactics, and backyard fallout shelters (which BTW, are still popular with the
ultrarich). Concern over survivability of nuclear radiation was big business for
both the civilian and government / military communities not just for food, medicine, breathable air
and potable water, but for electronics as well. After all, being cooped up in your subterranean universe
for weeks or months while waiting for the outside environment to be habitable could be awfully lonely
without some method of contacting other survivors.
Consequently, much work was conducted to characterize and quantify how various forms of radiation
affected electronic components. As you might expect, semiconductors, electrolytic capacitors, carbon
resistors, and similar components that feature very small spacing between neighboring compositional
particles are the most vulnerable. Wirewound resistors, crystals and, notably, vacuum tubes are amongst
the most tolerant of radiation. That is largely why even modern-day
Survivalists insist on vintage
radio gear and pre-electronics trucks to supplement canned and vacuum-sealed food caches and large arsenals
Concerns for nuclear catastrophe survival are even more important today because of high altitude
flight and space operations that are subject to forms of both ionizing and non-ionization when operating
outside (or near the edge of) the protection of the Earth's atmosphere. Rad-hard (radiation hardened) components
are big business for military and commercial equipment.
Effects of Radiation on Electronic Components
By Edward Tromanhauser
What happens to a capacitor, transistor, or vacuum tube when exposed to nuclear radiation? Here is
what investigators have learned about this problem.
Table 1. The effects of radiation on various commonly used electronic parts.
Tremendous amounts of money are being spent by our government to determine the effects of nuclear
radiation on electronic components and systems. The Defense Department and the National Aeronautics
and Space Administration have spent over $150-million on this problem in the past few years.
Much of this research has been concentrated on the exposure effects on equipment operated near nuclear
reactors - such as are used in our atomic submarines. Other tests have been equally important. If a
missile or aircraft passes through an atomic cloud, the electronic equipment is exposed to intense gamma
radiation. The effects of this radiation can be great enough to cause the missile guidance system to
malfunction or the navigational equipment in the aircraft to fail. Receiving and transmitting equipment,
radar, fire-control systems, and computers all can be damaged by nuclear radiation. We must know how
to counter this danger by using radiation-resistant components and adequate shielding.
Reasons for Damage
Practically all materials will sustain some change in a radiation field due to the action of the
radiation on the atomic and molecular structure of the materials. The degree of change is a measure
of the radiation damage and is a function of (a) type of material, (b) type of radiation, and (c) amounts
of radiation particles and their energies.
As radiation particles travel through a material they transfer part of their energies to the electrons
and nucleus of the material and rupture the chemical bonds, producing ionization and atomic displacement.
For example, proton damage to a transistor consists of ionization and impact damage. After exposure
to large amounts, the current gains of germanium transistors have fallen from 70 to less than 20.
Some electronic components hold up very well under intense radiation, among these are the vacuum
tube, ceramic and mica capacitors, copper wire, transformers, and printed-circuit boards. Air entry
is the most common cause of vacuum-tube failure and is due to the deterioration of the envelope seals.
Insulation will deteriorate in a radiation field long before the conductor material is affected. Ceramic
and mica capacitors show almost no change in ratings although due to disassociation and disorder produced
in the molecules of the dielectric, there is a tendency for all capacitors to decrease in capacitance
when subject to radiation. Since the same types of components are used in our civilian commercial equipment,
the conclusions reached by investigators will be of interest to everyone in the field of electronics.
Although the exact gamma spectrum from a nuclear blast is not precisely calculated, it may be assumed
that all electronic equipment within the line-of-sight radiation area will be affected to some degree.
By the time the nuclear radiation reaches the electronic system, the energy spectra will have been modified
to some extent by passage through the atmosphere. It is known that at lesser radii from an atomic detonation
there are proportionally greater energy gamma rays than one would expect at greater radii. Gamma rays
lose their energy mainly by Compton scatter, photoelectric absorption; and pair production.
Types of Radiation
Before we discuss the effects of radiation on electronic equipment, let us find out what types of
radiation we have to deal with. Radiation can be divided into two groups or types: (1) charged particles
- electrons and protons and (2) uncharged particles - neutrons, gamma rays.
For measuring gamma we use the roentgen as the unit of measurement. The roentgen is defined as x-ray
or gamma radiation producing, by ionization, 1 ESU (one electrostatic unit of electricity) in 1 cc.
of air. For measurement of neutron radiation we use the NVT or number of particles present in unit volume,
multiplied by their velocity (N * V * T).
Among the most radiation-sensitive components we find the transistor. Loss of alpha, an increase
in leakage current, and barrier failure are common. Other semiconductors, such as germanium, silicon,
and cuprous oxide diodes, all fail in a radiation field through loss of rectification qualities. Radiation
destroys the barrier until the diode acts as a mere resistance in the circuit and conducts in both directions.
Depending on the intensity of the field, this may take from 1 to 20 hours. The time factor varies with
the type of diode.
Oil-paper capacitors have their plates expanded and may burst and short out due to the gas generated
by the action of radiation upon the oil or wax. Resistors may change in value as high as 24 per-cent.
Table 1 illustrates the type of damage done to the most common components. As investigation continues,
many new problems will be highlighted and design changes made in vital equipment used by business, industry,
and the military. Already certain recommendations can be made in the design of equipment. Inorganics
should be used whenever possible because of the instability of organics when subjected to radiation.
In certain applications, the substitution of vacuum tubes for transistors will have to be made. Some
equipment must be made to function with wider voltage tolerances. Some types of lightweight shielding
should be designed to minimize radiation damage.
Many of the problems are in the process of being solved by NASA as it extends its space program and
more electronic equipment is being packed into each payload that has to pass through the Van Allen radiation
belt where the delicate subminiature instrumentation can be seriously damaged by radiation.
1. Van Allen. J. and French, L.: "Survey of Radiation Around the Earth," Iowa State University,
2. Pigg, J. and Robinson, C.: "Radiation Effects in Semiconductor Devices," Proc. Transistor, New
York University Press, 1956. pg. 77.
3. Zeigor, H.: "Radiation Effects Upon Electronic Components," Journal of Physical Chemistry, June
Posted January 30, 2017