30th May 2020
New 5G switches bring better battery life, higher bandwidth and speeds
As 5G hits the market, new U.S. Army-funded research has developed a radio-frequency switch that is over 50 times more energy efficient than what is used today.
The 5G revolution has begun, and the first lines of phones that can access the next generation of wireless speeds have already hit the shelves. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Lille in France have built a new component that will more efficiently allow access to the highest 5G frequencies in a way that increases devices' battery life, and speeds up features like streaming of 4K video.
Smartphones are loaded with switches that perform a number of duties. One major task is jumping between networks and spectrum frequencies: 4G, Wi-Fi, LTE, Bluetooth, etc. Current radio-frequency (RF) switches that perform this task are always running, consuming precious battery life and processing power.
"The switch we have developed is more than 50 times more energy efficient compared to what is used today," said Deji Akinwande, a professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering who led the research. "It can transmit an HDTV stream at a 100 gigahertz frequency, and that is unheard of in broadband switch technology."
Akinwande and his research team published their findings this week in the journal Nature Electronics.
"It has become clear that the existing switches consume significant amounts of power," said Akinwande. "And that power consumed is useless power."
The new switches stay off, saving battery life for other processes, unless they are actively helping a device jump between networks. They have also shown the ability to transmit data well above the baseline for 5G-level speeds.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has for years pushed for the development of "near-zero-power" RF switches. Prior researchers have found success on the low end of the 5G spectrum – where speeds are slower but data can travel longer distances. However, this is the first switch that can function across the spectrum from the low-end gigahertz (GHz) frequencies to high-end terahertz (THz) frequencies that could someday be key to the development of 6G.
The new switches are based on a nanomaterial called hexagonal boron nitride (hBN), which comes from the same family as graphene. The structure involves a single layer of boron and nitrogen atoms in a honeycomb pattern, which Akinwande said is almost 1 million times thinner than a human hair, sandwiched between a pair of gold electrodes.
The impact of these switches could extend beyond smartphones and to many different technologies. Satellite systems, smart radios, reconfigurable communications, the Internet of Things (IOT) and defence technology are examples of other potential applications.
"Radio-frequency switches are pervasive in military communication, connectivity and radar systems," said Dr. Pani Varanasi, Materials Science Division Chief at the U.S. Army Research Office, part of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, which helped fund the project. "These new switches could provide a large performance advantage compared to existing components and can enable longer battery life for mobile communication, and advanced reconfigurable systems."
This research spun out of a previous project that created the thinnest memory device ever produced, using the same nanomaterial. Akinwande said sponsors encouraged his team to find other uses for hBN, which led them to pivot to RF switches.