Will graphene radios unlock IoT access to terahertz band?

If you use wireless connections on your various devices today, there’s a very good chance that device is using a shared area of the wireless spectrum called radio waves. These waves float all around us, every day. Our phones, Wi-Fi routers, and even the electric meters on the side of our homes use radio waves to communicate.

With so many devices coming online now with the proliferation of the Internet of Things, this spectrum is becoming a very cluttered place.

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The terahertz band, however, is like a brand new toll road. It’s paved and ready with many lanes open for traffic. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of people using it. This is due to the fact that for decades we’ve been using radio waves and all of the accessible technology does, too.

This means innovators need to think outside the radio wave. They need to come up with a new technology that can communicate efficiently on the terahertz band.

Dr. Josep Jornet, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Buffalo School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is currently working on a three-year research project leveraging a $600k grant from the United States Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

The goal of this program: to develop a wireless network that operates in the terahertz band.

Jornet recently noted from the University of Buffalo, “For wireless communication, the terahertz band is like an express lane. But there’s a problem: there are no entrance ramps.”

Terahertz band: The challenge and the solution

Terahertz waves have a lot of great communications potential. It’s a space where data can be transmitted much faster than through radio waves. It is also largely virgin territory free from the noise that millions of wireless devices are generating.

Unfortunately, there is a downside to these waves. It is difficult to use them to carry a signal across long distances.  Where you can use a relatively low-powered radio transmitter to send a signal across miles or even into space, the terahertz wave is a bit more complex.

One solution being examined by Jornet and his team are tiny graphene-based radios that enable nano-devices to not only send and receive data, but to do so as part of a type of nano-swarm that enables the signal to be transmitted across a longer distance.

Instead of sending a slow signal from point to point using radio waves, these little nano radios would carry a signal through many different smaller points. This allows a lot more data to travel a greater distance.

The result, tiny nano devices sending and receiving data at a rate of over 1 terabit per second. That’s fast.

These antennas are also remarkably small thanks to the graphene materials. They are just 10-100 nanometers wide and one micrometer long. For reference: a nanometer is one billionth of a meter.

The applications for this technology are very real. The medical field would benefit greatly from nano-machines that can travel harmlessly through the human body, reporting any issues and offering valuable insights into the patient’s health.

If this research proves fruitful, we could be seeing another big step towards not just a better Internet of Things, but an Internet of Nano-things.

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