Researchers Develop Energy Efficient Switches for 5G and Terahertz Communication Systems

The 5G revolution has begun and the first lines of phones that can access the next generation wireless technology 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 the battery life of a device and speeds up how quickly one can do things like streaming high-definition media.

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. The current radio-frequency (RF) switches that perform this task are always running, consuming precious processing power and battery life. The switch that the researchers have developed is more than 50 times more energy efficient compared to what is used today. It can transmit an HDTV stream at a 100 gigahertz frequency, and that is unheard of in broadband switch technology.

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 U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has for years pushed for the development of near-zero-power RF switches. In the past, researchers have found success on the low end of the 5G spectrum – where speeds are slower but data can travel longer distances. But, 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.

A diagram of the UT Austin team’s switch showing two gold electrodes with a layer of hBN in between. Image: UT Austin

The UT team’s switches use the nanomaterial hexagonal boron nitrite (hBN). It is an emerging nanomaterial from the same family as graphene, the so-called wonder material. The structure of the switch involves a single layer of boron and nitrogen atoms in a honeycomb pattern, which is said to be almost 1 million times thinner than human hair, sandwiched between a pair of gold electrodes.

This research spun out of a previous project that created the thinnest memory device ever produced using hBN. The sponsors encouraged the researchers to find other uses for the material and that led them to pivot to RF switches .

Radio-frequency switches are pervasive in military communication, connectivity and radar systems. These new switches could provide large performance advantage compared to existing components and can enable longer battery life for mobile communication and advanced reconfigurable systems. The impact of these switches extends beyond smartphones. Satellite systems, smart radios, reconfigurable communications, the internet of things and defense technology are all examples of other potential uses for the switches.

The research was funded through grants from the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the Army Research Office, and an Engineering Research Center funded by the National Science Foundation. Fabrication of the switch was partly done at the Texas Nanofabrication Facility, and hBN samples were provided by Grolltex Inc.

Click here to read more about the findings in the publication.