New Technology – February 2017

grapheneThere has been so much going on in the telecom industry lately that I haven’t published a blog examining promising new technologies for a while. Here are a few new breakthroughs that ought to eventually affect our industry:

Metal that Conducts Electricity but not Heat. Physicists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and UC Berkeley have found a metal that contradicts the Wiedermann-Franz Law.  This Law states that good conductors of electricity will also be proportionately good conductors of heat. The physicists were working with vanadium dioxide and unexpectedly discovered this property. There are a few other materials that are much better at conducting electricity than heat, but they only do so at temperatures a few hundred degrees below zero. It appears vanadium dioxide can do this at room temperatures. This property is derived from the fact that electrons move through the metal in a synchronized manner which is normally observed only in fluids, instead of individually which is normally observed in metals.

There is great potential for a material with this property – it could be used as an insulator in computers to keep components cool and to drastically lower the cooling costs experienced in data centers. On a more macro level this could lead to better insulation in homes and appliances and could drastically improve energy efficiency in a wide range of applications.

Superconductor Graphene. Researchers at the University of Cambridge in the UK have found a way to induce superconductivity in graphene. Today all superconducting materials only function at temperatures below -454 degrees Fahrenheit. But their research indicates superconducting graphene will work at much higher temperatures. The researchers created superconducting properties by layering graphene only on an underlying sheet of metal.

Superconduction is a big deal, because in the ultimate state a superconductor passes electrons with zero resistance. Compare that to normal materials, such as our electric grid that loses 7% of generated power getting to homes, and the difference is remarkable.  Finding a room-temperature superconductor would be a huge breakthrough because it could mean electric transmissions with no power losses and an end to the heat generated in electronics and appliances that comes from resistance.

Mass Producing Graphene. Scientists at Kansas State have found a cheap way to mass produce graphene. They discovered the process when working with carbon soot aerosol gels. The process is simple and only requires hydrocarbon gas, oxygen and a spark plug. The gases are forced into a chamber and graphene is formed with a spark. This is a low-power way to make graphene since it only needs a spark rather than continuous power.

Until now graphene has been expensive to make in quantities greater than milligrams and the process required caustic chemicals. With this method it’s easy to make graphene in gram quantities and the process ought to be scalable to much larger quantities.

Better Use of Wireless Spectrum. Engineers at UCLA have found a technique that might allow better use of wireless spectrum. They have found a way to use a tiny device called a circulator that allows a chip to use both incoming and outgoing signals of a given spectrum at the same time. Today’s technology only uses spectrum in one direction since dual use of spectrum has caused interference.

Circulators have been tried before, but earlier devices used magnetic materials which can’t be incorporated into chips. The prototype they built uses coaxial cables to route the signals through non-magnetic materials and they believe the design can be built directly into silicon.

The circulator works by sequentially switching signals using different paths in a similar manner that a busy train station can have trains coming in going in both directions. The design uses six transmission lines and five switches which are turned off and on sequentially to allow incoming and outgoing signals to pass each other without interference.

This would be a big breakthrough for cellphones since it would allow for better use of the spectrum. This wouldn’t increase data speeds, but would allow a cell site to handle more phones at the same time.

New Technology – Telecom and Computing Breakthroughs

The InternetToday I look at some breakthroughs that will result in better fiber networks and faster computers – all components needed to help our networks be faster and more efficient.

Increasing Fiber Capacity. A study from Bell Labs suggests that existing fiber networks could be made 40% more efficient by changing to IP transit routing. Today operators divvy up networks into discrete components. For example, the capacity on a given route may be segmented into distinct dedicated 100 Gig paths that are then used for various discrete purposes. This takes the available bandwidth on a given long-haul fiber and breaks it into pieces, much in the same manner as was done in the past with TDM technology to break data into T1s and DS3s.

The Bell Lab study suggests a significant improvement if the entire bandwidth on a given fiber is treated as one huge data pipe, much in the same manner as might be done with the WAN inside of a large business. This makes sense because there is always spare or unused capacity on each segment of the fiber’s bandwidth and putting it all together into one large pipe makes the spare capacity available. Currently Alcatel Lucent, Telefonica, and Deutsche Telekom are working on gear that will enable the concept.

Reducing Interference on Fiber. Researchers at University College London have developed a new set of techniques that reduce interference between different light wave frequencies on fiber. It is the accumulation of interference that requires optical repeaters to be placed on networks to refresh optical signals.

The research team took a fresh approach to how signals are generated onto fiber and pass the optical signals through a comb generator to create seven equidistantly-spaced and frequency-locked signals, each in the form of a 16 QAM super-channel. This reduces the number of different light signals on the fiber to these seven channels which drastically reduces the interference.

The results were spectacular and they were able to generate a signal that could travel without re-amplification for 5,890 kilometers, or 3,660 miles. This has immediate benefit for undersea cables since finding ways to repeat these signals is costly. But there are applications beyond long-haul fiber and the team is now looking at ways to use the dense super-channels for cable TV systems, cable modems, and Ethernet connections.

Faster Computer Chips. A research team at MIT has found a way to make multicore chips faster. Multicore chips contain more than one processor and are used today for intense computing needs in places like data centers and in supercomputers.

The improvement comes through the creation of a new scheduling technique they are calling CDCS (computation and data co-scheduling). This technique is a way to more efficiently distribute data flow and the timing of computations on the chips. The new algorithm they have developed allows data to be placed near to where calculations are performed, reducing the movement of data within the chip. This results in a 46% increase in computing capacity while also reducing power consumption by 36%. Consequently, this will reduce the need for cooling which is becoming a major concern and one of the biggest costs at data centers.

Faster Cellphones. Researchers at the University of Texas have found a way to double the speed at which cellphones and other wireless devices can send or receive data. The circuit they have developed will let the cellphone radio deploy in ‘full-duplex’ mode, meaning that the radio can make both send and receive signals at the same time.

Today a cellphone radio can do one or the other and your phone’s radio constantly flips between sending or receiving data. Radios have always done this so that the frequencies from the transmitting part of the phone, which are normally the stronger of the two signals, don’t interfere with and drown out the incoming signals.

The new circuit, which they are calling a circulator, can isolate the incoming and outgoing signals and acts as a filter to keep the two separate. Circulators have been is use for a long time in devices like radar, but they have required large, bulky magnets made from expensive rare earth metals. But the new circulator devised by the team does this same function using standard chip components.

This circulator is a tiny standalone device that can be added to any radio chip and it acts like a traffic manager to monitor and control the incoming and outgoing signals. This simple, new component is perfect for cellphones, but will benefit any two-way radio, such as WiFi routers. Since a lot of the power used in a cellphone goes to flipping between send and receive mode, this new technology ought to also provide a significant improvement to battery life.

Million-Fold Increase in Hard Drive Capacity? Researchers at the Naval Research Laboratory have developed a way to magnetize graphene, and this could lead to data storage devices with a million-time increase in storage per size of the device. Graphene is a 1-atom thick sheet of carbon which can be layered to make multi-dimensional stacked chips.

The scientists have been able to magnetize the graphene by sitting it on a layer of silicon and submerging it in a pool of cryogenic ammonia and lithium for about a minute. They then introduce hydrogen, which renders the graphene electromagnetic. The process is adjustable, and with an electron beam you can shave off hydrogen atoms and effectively write on the graphene chip. Today we already have terabyte flash drives. Anybody have a need for an exabyte flash drive?