New Non-Reciprocal Circulator Operates at Millimeter-Wave Frequencies
The Engineer posted on October 06, 2017 |

A team of engineers has published a paper demonstrating the physical principles behind a device that was unveiled at the IEEE International Solid-State Circuits Conference: the first magnet-free non-reciprocal circulator on a silicon chip that operates at millimeter-wave frequencies (frequencies near and above 30GHz).

The paper is published in Nature Communications.

Most devices are reciprocal: signals travel in the same manner in forward and reverse directions. Nonreciprocal devices, such as circulators, on the other hand, allow forward and reverse signals to traverse different paths and therefore be separated. Traditionally, nonreciprocal devices have been built from special magnetic materials that make them bulky, expensive, and not suitable for consumer wireless electronics.

The team has developed a new way to enable nonreciprocal transmission of waves: using carefully synchronized high-speed transistor switches that route forward and reverse waves differently. In effect, it is similar to two trains approaching each other at super-high speeds that are detoured at the last moment so that they do not collide.

The key advance of this new approach is that it enables circulators to be built in conventional semiconductor chips and operate at millimeter-wave frequencies, enabling full-duplex or two-way wireless. Virtually all electronic devices currently operate in half-duplex mode at lower radio-frequencies (below 6GHz), and consequently, we are rapidly running out of bandwidth.

Full-duplex communications, in which a transmitter and a receiver of a transceiver operate simultaneously on the same frequency channel, enables doubling of data capacity within existing bandwidth. Going to the higher mm-wave frequencies, 30GHz and above, opens up new bandwidth that is not currently in use.

"This gives us a lot more real estate," noted Harish Krishnaswamy, associate professor of electrical engineering at Columbia University, whose Columbia High-Speed and Mm-wave IC (CoSMIC) Lab has been working on silicon radio chips for full duplex communications for several years. His method enables loss-free, compact, and extremely broadband non-reciprocal behavior, theoretically from DC to daylight, that can be used to build a wide range of non-reciprocal components such as isolators, gyrators, and circulators.

This is a chip microphotograph of the 25GHz fully-integrated non-reciprocal passive magnetic-free 45nm SOI CMOS circulator based on spatio-temporal conductivity modulation. (Image courtesy of Tolga Dinc/Columbia Engineering.)
This is a chip microphotograph of the 25GHz fully-integrated non-reciprocal passive magnetic-free 45nm SOI CMOS circulator based on spatio-temporal conductivity modulation. (Image courtesy of Tolga Dinc/Columbia Engineering.)
"This mm-wave circulator enables mm-wave wireless full-duplex communications, Krishnaswamy added, "and this could revolutionize emerging 5G cellular networks, wireless links for virtual reality, and automotive radar."

Self-driving cars, for instance, require low-cost fully-integrated millimeter-wave radars. These radars inherently need to be full-duplex, and would work alongside ultra-sound and camera-based sensors in self-driving cars because they can work in all weather conditions and during both night and day. The new circulator could also be used to build millimeter-wave full-duplex wireless links for VR headsets, which currently rely on a wired connection or tether to the computing device.

"For a smooth wireless VR experience, a huge amount of data has to be sent back and forth between the computer and the headset requiring low-latency bi-directional communication," says Krishnaswamy. "A mm-wave full-duplex transceiver enabled by our CMOS circulator could be a promising solution as it has the potential to deliver high speed data with low latency, in a small size with low cost."

The team’s long-term goal is to build a large-scale mm-wave full-duplex phased array system that uses their circulator.

For more electronics news, find out if Flexible Transistors are Ready for Mass Production.

Source: Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science

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