Newswise — FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – University of Arkansas engineering professors Zhong Chen and Simon Ang will collaborate with researchers at Texas Instruments and the University of Texas at Dallas to develop computer chips with mechanisms that protect integrated circuits from damage due to electrostatic discharge.

Their work will improve the robustness and reliability of computers, tablets and cell phones – any device equipped with high-speed interface ports, such as USB-C and HDMI ports – and protect them from damage due to human and machine handling, lightning and other kinds of electrostatic discharge events.

Electrostatic discharge occurs when two electrically charged objects come into contact with each other and create a sudden flow of electricity. This event is what most people call “static” electricity. The most common example example of electrostatic discharge is the sound and possible spark caused when pulling apart wool socks; the most dramatic example is lightning.

Small-scale electrostatic discharge events may not be seen or heard, yet they can cause significant damage to electronic devices and integrated circuits. For this reason, electronics manufacturers focus on different methods to implement on-chip electrostatic discharge protection to improve their robustness and reliability. However, the integrated circuits implemented with system-level electrostatic discharge protection are much more expensive than those without protection. The performance of integrated circuits can also be degraded due to large on-chip electrostatic discharge protection structures. 

Chen and Ang will develop cost-effective, on-chip protection structures for high-speed integrated circuits. These structures improve the rail-based electrostatic discharge protection, a system that utilizes two “rails” – a power supply rail and ground rail – to discharge high electrostatic current. This type of electrostatic discharge protection is typically implemented in high-speed or digital designs due to its low capacitance, high bandwidth and low leakage current.

When Chen and Ang complete their work, a design team at Texas Instruments will integrate the protection structure into a high-speed integrated circuit and test its effectiveness.

The research is funded by the Semiconductor Research Corp. in Durham, North Carolina. The budget for the project is $255,000.