Having things like ultra-high-definition streaming at our fingertips on our mobile phones is something we’ve only been able to enjoy thanks to 5G, the fifth generation of mobile communications.
But say our future daily lives will include satellite Internet, virtual reality, autonomous vehicles and smart homes: they will need even more high-speed connectivity, and technologies capable of processing huge amounts of data extremely quickly.
Accelerating wireless communications requires quicker signals, with electronics operating at higher frequencies - the number of oscillations per second, or how fast a signal can go from point A to point B.
Currently, communication systems can use signals with speeds of up to tens of gigahertz (1 billion oscillations per second), but for future 6G communications, they will need signals as swift as one terahertz (1 trillion oscillations per second).
Unfortunately, right now electronic devices such as transistors cannot function at such high speeds, resulting in what's frequently referred to as the “terahertz gap”. This limitation could impede the progress of upcoming technologies.
Iranian researcher Mohammad Samizahed Nikoo and his team at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have developed a new type of device as an alternative to transistors and diodes that is capable of transmitting much higher speeds.
Conventional electronic devices work based on controlling electrons: there is a “gate” that either lets the electrons go, or forces them to stop. But the scientists came up with a new approach to electronics that controls electromagnetic transmission without injecting a single electron.
They called this concept an “electronic metadevice” – because it can do much more than a normal device. In fact, it exhibits “extraordinary electronic properties,” the study says.
It uses a “completely different kind of switch, with a distinct working principle and mechanism” than transistors, Samizahed Nikoo told Euronews Next.
“Instead of relying on the movement of electrons, we manage electromagnetic interactions to achieve much faster speeds. This new electronic switch allows us to control rapid signals,” he explained.
10 times faster than 5G - and perhaps even faster than that
Samizahed Nikoo and his team managed to transmit data at terahertz frequencies of up to 100 gigabits per second, which is already 10 times faster than 5G, and 100 times faster than 4G.
“These high speeds enable us to transfer a substantial amount of information quickly, meeting the demands of 6G telecommunications,” he added.
Their findings, published this month in the journal Nature, suggest that such electronic metadevices may be able to achieve even higher speeds and pave the way for wireless connections with data speeds in the terabits per second (in the thousands of gigabits per second).
In other words, according to the team, these devices could not only easily handle the speeds required for 6G, but they may also usher in the next generation of ultra-fast communications.
Companies like Huawei, Apple, and Ericsson are already working on developing new semiconductor materials - other than silicon - to make transistors more efficient for 6G telecommunications.
Samizadeh Nikoo said his team, by contrast, developed “a new type of electronic device that can be constructed on any type of semiconductor”.
“This means that we can achieve 6G speeds by focusing on economical silicon, and by implementing the device on new semiconductor materials, we can achieve even higher speeds for future post-6G telecommunications”.
“A crucial aspect of this novel electronic device that makes it viable is that it can be produced without requiring any special conditions using standard semiconductor industry processes,” he added.
Samizadeh Nikoo said he and his team expect this device to be used both as standalone and integrated circuits.
There are lingering fears that the race towards ever faster Internet connection through 5G networks may have detrimental effects on the environment and on human health, and Samizadeh Nikoo said research is ongoing to ensure the technology is safe.
“However, the intriguing aspect of 6G telecommunications is that the extremely high-frequency waves employed, known as terahertz, lack the capability to penetrate deep into the skin tissue,” he said.
“This means that they only enter the surface of human skin by around 0.1mm, thus reducing the likelihood of any adverse effects on internal organs or tissues”.