When your computer crashes or your smartphone freezes, most likely you blame the manufacturer. In many instances, however, these failures may be caused by the impact of electrically charged particles generated by cosmic rays that originate outside the solar system, a study says.
"This is a really big problem, but it is mostly invisible to the public," said Bharat Bhuva, Professor of Electrical Engineering at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, US.
When cosmic rays travelling at fractions of the speed of light strike the Earth's atmosphere they create cascades of secondary particles, including energetic neutrons, muons, pions and alpha particles. Millions of these particles strike your body each second.
Despite their numbers, this subatomic torrent is imperceptible and has no known harmful effects on living organisms.
However, a fraction of these particles carry enough energy to interfere with the operation of microelectronic circuitry.
When they interact with integrated circuits, they may alter individual bits of data stored in memory. This is called a single-event upset or SEU.
Since it is difficult to know when and where these particles will strike and they do not do any physical damage, the malfunctions they cause are very difficult to characterise.
As a result, determining the prevalence of SEUs is not easy or straightforward.
"When you have a single bit flip, it could have any number of causes. It could be a software bug or a hardware flaw, for example. The only way you can determine that it is a single-event upset is by eliminating all the other possible causes," Bhuva, an alumnus of University of Baroda in India, explained.
"Our study confirms that this is a serious and growing problem," said Bhuva in a presentation at the recently concluded annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.
"This did not come as a surprise. Through our research on radiation effects on electronic circuits developed for military and space applications, we have been anticipating such effects on electronic systems operating in the terrestrial environment," he added.
The good news, Bhuva said, is that the aviation, medical equipment, IT, transportation, communications, financial and power industries are all aware of the problem and are taking steps to address it.
"It is only the consumer electronics sector that has been lagging behind in addressing this problem," he said.