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3D reflector microchips could speed development of 6G wireless

Alright, imagine you're about to start a big adventure, like stepping into a magical world filled with books, new friends, and exciting discoveries. That's what happened to Alex on their first day at university.

Alex had butterflies fluttering in their stomach as they walked through the gates of the university, feeling a mix of excitement and nervousness. They looked around and saw so many new faces—some smiling, some looking just as unsure as Alex felt.

Their heart raced as they found their way to the big lecture hall for their first class. The room was huge, with rows of desks and a towering screen at the front. Alex found a seat, feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all.

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Cornell University researchers have developed a semiconductor chip that will enable ever-smaller devices to operate at the higher frequencies needed for future 6G communication technology.

The next generation of wireless communication not only requires greater bandwidth at higher frequencies—it also needs a little extra time. The new chip adds a necessary time delay so signals sent across multiple arrays can align at a single point in space— without disintegrating.

The team’s paper, “Ultra-Compact Quasi-True-Time-Delay for Boosting Wireless Channel-Capacity,” was published March 6 in Nature. The lead author is Bal Govind, a doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering.

The majority of current wireless communications, such as 5G phones, operate at frequencies below 6 gigahertz (GHz). Technology companies have been aiming to develop a new wave of 6G cellular communications that use frequencies above 20 GHz, where there is more available bandwidth, which means more data can flow and at a faster rate. 6G is expected to be 100 times faster than 5G.

However, since data loss through the environment is greater at higher frequencies, one crucial factor is how the data is relayed. Instead of relying on a single transmitter and a single receiver, most 5G and 6G technologies use a more energy-efficient method: a series of phased arrays of transmitters and receivers.

“Every frequency in the communication band goes through different time delays,” Govind said. “The problem we’re addressing is decades old—that of transmitting high-bandwidth data in an economical manner so signals of all frequencies line up at the right place and time.”

“It’s not just building something with enough delay, it’s building something with enough delay where you still have a signal at the end,” said senior author Alyssa Apsel, professor of engineering. “The trick is that we were able to do it without enormous loss.”

Bal worked with postdoctoral researcher and co-author Thomas Tapen to design a complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) that could tune a time delay over an ultra-broad bandwidth of 14 GHz, with as high as 1 degree of phase resolution

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