For Those Sick Little Circuits, A Pricey Probe

Defects in an integrated circuit cause irregularities in electric current, which can cripple a satellite or a computer. Discovering the culprit may require chemically removing layers on the chip or cutting it in cross-sections. If engineers could just take a snapshot of all the current paths on the chip, they could trace and correct the defect.

Scientists at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., say they can do just that with a magnetic force microscope (MFM) sold by Park Scientific Instruments in Sunnyvale, Calif. The MFM generates detailed images of the IC surface, based on the minute deflection of a probe scanning the chip. The probe is fitted with a microscopic magnet that can sense changes in magnetic fields generated by the electric current on the chip. Team leader Ann Campbell says the device should help chipmakers confirm their designs as well as monitor failures. But it won't come cheap. MFMs fitted with the necessary electronics may sell for as much as $250,000.

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