DARPA’s Terahertz Breakthrough Could Help Ease Spectrum Crunch

English: The electromagnetic spectrum. The scarcity of intense broadband sources of radiation in the 10 12 hertz (terahertz) frequency range leaves us blind to a wide range of interesting phenomena. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: The electromagnetic spectrum. The scarcity of intense broadband sources of radiation in the 10 12 hertz (terahertz) frequency range leaves us blind to a wide range of interesting phenomena. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Administrators at Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency celebrated their first Guinness World Record last week for sponsoring the creation of the world’s fastest solid-state amplifier integrated circuit. At a ceremony in Arlington, VA, the Guinness representative joked it was the geekiest record ever.

The amplifier, which was developed by Northrup Grumman, can operate at 1 THz frequencies—about a trillion cycles per second—significantly faster than the existing record of 850 GHz that was set in 2012. It opens the door to the creation of terahertz radio, which could transmit exponentially greater amounts of data than today’s radios. Possible applications include covert satellite communications or the transfer of large amounts of data at close proximities. It also could be used for more detailed imaging and sensing. Think radar on steroids.

What we won’t see is terahertz-based telecommunications networks on earth or PCs running at terahertz speeds any time soon. In terms of communications, the sub-millimeter waves that make up the terahertz spectrum don’t travel well through the earth’s atmosphere. While terahertz computers are a theoretical possibility, today’s computers run on digital chips. DARPA’s breakthrough is an analogue chip that amplifies an analogue signal. In comparison, the world’s fastest desktop CPU, Intel’s 8-core Haswell-E has a maximum clock speed of 3.5GHz.

Still, Dev Palmer, the manager of DARPA’s Terahertz Electronics Program, said the nano-sized transistors that were developed for the amplifier could be instrumental in building next generation telecommunications networks known as 5G. Researchers are exploring how 5G networks could take advantage of little used spectrum in the 30 to 300 GHz range. This is known as millimeter wave communications in reference to the wavelengths of these frequencies. The 5G vision includes replacing the so-called last-mile fiber connection with wireless broadband and low-interference, highly dense small cells. This would help alleviate that so-called spectrum crunch in which ever-increasing amounts of wireless data is squeezed into the limited set of frequencies currently controlled by mobile carriers.

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