Rice University and US Army Developing Ultrawide Bandgap Successor to GaN Technology

Rice University and the US Army have established a five-year, $30 million cooperative agreement for research to enable advanced materials and next-generation networks. The effort is aimed at unprecedented intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance specifically focused on next-generation wireless networks and radio frequency (RF) electronics.

The Rice-ARL partnership stemmed from a visit to Rice earlier this year by Gen. John Murray of U.S. Army Futures Command, a new four-star command the Army established in 2018 to oversee the Army’s modernization priorities.

ARL and Rice will match the right people and capabilities to meet specific challenges, and the cooperative agreement is structured to allow the Army to partner widely across the campus. One exciting aspect of this partnership is the broader societal benefits. The technologies which Rice is starting with are needed for Army modernization and they could also benefit millions of Americans in communities that still lack high-speed internet.

Thirty years ago, the Department of Defense led the development of gallium nitride semiconductors, a wide-bandgap alternative to silicon that is the mainstay of today’s high-performance radio frequency (RF) electronics and power electronics. The ARL-Rice diamond materials team is working toward an ultrawide-bandgap successor to gallium nitride. RF hardware improvements could benefit the autonomous networks team, which is looking to transform the labor-intensive and time-consuming process of setting up and managing wireless networks.

The diamond team is co-led by Pulickel Ajayan, chair of Rice’s Department of Materials Science and NanoEngineering (MSNE), and Tony Ivanov, branch chief of ARL’s Electronics and RF Division, and also includes MSNE faculty member Robert Vajtai. It plans to build a one-of-a-kind facility at Rice for growing ultrapure diamond films and heterostructures of diamond and other materials that can be used in RF electronics prototypes.

The networking team aims to create distributed, self-aware networks that can sense attacks and protect themselves by adaption or stealth. The team is co-led by Rice’s Ashutosh Sabharwal, chair of Rice’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), and Ananthram Swami, a senior research scientist in ARL’s Network Science Division, and also includes Rice ECE faculty members Edward Knightly and Santiago Segarra.

Heidi Maupin, the regional director of the ARL South in Austin, and the lead ARL contact for the Rice partnership said the technology will benefit both the Army and civilians.

The technology needed for deploying secure, robust Army communications networks will benefit the world by transforming the economics of rural broadband, reducing response times to natural disasters, opening new opportunities for online education and more.