If the transition to 5G taught us anything, it’s that developing chips to support a new generation of connectivity isn’t easy. Though 5G barely seems established, experts are already eyeing faster 6G technology. Some posit the next-gen protocol could arrive as soon as 2030. However, the radio frequency (RF) chip architecture needed to support this shift is far from realized.
A team of researchers from Australia believe their latest breakthrough could change that. The team’s research, published in the journal Nature Communications, demonstrates a radical improvement in RF bandwidth and improved signal accuracy at high frequencies. This is thanks to a novel design that utilizes chiplet architecture to put both electronic and photonic components on a single 5mm silicon wafer.
In traditional chips, microwave filters play the important role of blocking out signals from frequencies outside the desired range. A different approach is needed for light-based signals, such as those used in photonics chips. Lead researcher Professor Ben Eggleton of the University of Sydney Nano Institute likened his team’s strategy to Lego bricks.
He said, “Microwave photonic filers play a crucial role in modern communication and radar applications, offering the flexibility to precisely filter different frequencies, reducing electromagnetic interference and enhancing signal quality.”
Until now, combining electronic and photonic components on a single chip has been incredibly challenging. Thanks to the team’s design, the chip can handle greater data throughput more accurately. This unlocks the potential for new wireless technologies, like 6G and even 7G, which operate at higher frequencies.
Eggleton said in a statement, “Our innovative approach of integrating advanced functionalities into semiconductor chips, particularly the heterogeneous integration of chalcogenide glass with silicon, holds the potential to reshape the local semiconductor landscape.”
Networks rely on distinct frequency ranges to send and receive data. For instance, 5G networks range from a low-band level of one gigahertz up to a high band of 24 to 53 gigahertz, according to OpenSignal. This facilitates average speeds around 140 megabits per second across most of the U.S., where cell carriers operate their 5G networks on the two to four gigahertz band.
However, 6G networks use a much higher frequency to transmit data. They’re expected to start between seven to 15 gigahertz but will range as high as 100 to 1,000 gigahertz for industrial applications.
With this in mind, chips that operate on next-gen networks will need to handle much more bandwidth than those currently available. Perhaps more importantly, they’ll need strong filtering abilities to reduce interference at higher frequencies. Utilizing microwave photonic filters is one possible solution.
Chips like those designed by the University of Sydney team have applications for a variety of sectors, including radar, satellites, advanced Wi-Fi, and 6G. Each of these will undoubtedly play an important role in the world’s future, so having cutting-edge semiconductor technology to support them is essential.
This new combined electronics and photonics chip architecture will be interesting to monitor over the coming years as additional studies take place and researchers further refine the design. Chiplets have already proven their usefulness many times in their relatively short existence. Time will tell what other exciting breakthroughs they may unlock.