Professor of electrical engineering and computer science Ben Blalock recently collaborated with NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on a historical research project that is helping to allow the Mars rover “Curiosity” to explore that planet’s terrain. Blalock and team set out to design integrated circuits, or in this case, ‘quad op amp’ microchips, for extreme environments, specifically, temperatures from −120°C to +20°C. The end result microchips—82 of them (2 quad op amp chips per motor actuator assembly)—are used in the motor controller electronics on Curiosity that help power the wheels, robotic arms, cameras, and other functions. Blalock and his team had to design the microchip to meet the Martian surface environment requirements and then some, as NASA eventually hopes to go beyond Mars and send rovers to asteroids. Blalock is thrilled that his students had the opportunity to develop space flight hardware. He hopes to shift his research to focus on new extreme challenges in integrated circuit design for scientific exploration.
Other current research interests include high-temperature/high-voltage gate drive circuits for highly integrated power electronics, multi-channel monolithic instrumentation systems, and mixed-signal/mixed-voltage circuit design for systems-on-a-chip.
Blalock received his bachelor’s in electrical engineering from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and his master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is director of the Integrated Circuits and Systems Laboratory at UT.