Researchers are realizing a printed millimeter wave modulator and an antenna array for backscatter communication

mmWave backscatter architecture. Source: Kimionis et al.

The number of smartphones, laptops and other devices connected to the Internet is constantly increasing. This growing network of connected devices, also known as the Internet of Things (IoT), involves the transmission of large amounts of data over the Internet.

To support the comprehensive exchange of information between IoT devices worldwide, computer scientists need to develop robust and scalable communication systems that allow users to transfer data quickly between devices without consuming too much power. One promising approach to enabling wireless communication is known as backscatter radio.

In essence, backscatter radio enables wireless communication through a process known as “reflection” rather than radiation. This approach allows data to be transmitted without batteries or electrical connections, using an antenna to pick up radio frequency signals.

Backscatter radios have several advantages, including low manufacturing costs, minimal complexity, and the ability to operate without batteries. However, to achieve high data rates and low power consumption, these tools may need to be integrated with more advanced wireless communication technologies.

Researchers at Herriot-Watt University and Nokia Bell Labs recently developed a new system consisting of a millimeter wave modulator and an antenna array to achieve backscatter communication at gigabit data rates. This system, featured in an article published in Nature Electronics, achieved both a remarkable bit rate and low power consumption.

“We report on a mm-wave modulator and an antenna array for backscatter communication at gigabit data rates,” write John Kimionis, Apostolos Georgiadis, Spyridon Nektarios Daskalakis and Manos M. Tentzeris, the researchers who conducted the study . “This high frequency front end consists of a microstrip patch antenna array and a single pseudomorphic high electron mobility transistor that supports a range of modulation formats including binary phase shift keying, quadrature phase shift keying, and quadrature amplitude modulation.”

The circuitry within the system developed by Kimionis and his colleagues was made using a technique known as inkjet printing, a type of computer printing that can recreate a digital image by forcing droplets of ink onto paper and plastic substrates. To print their circuitry, the researchers specifically hurled silver nanoparticle inks onto a flexible liquid crystal polymer substrate.

In addition, they designed a mm-wave transceiver that could capture backscattered signals and forward them for digital signal processing. While the analog modulation of backscatter signals had already been investigated in previous studies, Kimionis and his colleagues went one step further by introducing an analog control signal into the gate of a commercially available transistor.

The printed millimeter-wave modulator developed by this research team and the antenna-based system achieved promising results in initial evaluations. More specifically, the system achieved a remarkable bit rate of two gigabits per second in backscatter transmission at millimeter wave frequencies of 24-28 GHz with a front-end power consumption of 0.17 pJ per bit.

In the future, backscattering at millimeter wave frequencies could expand the compatibility of devices with 5G without the need to install complex or expensive components. This current study confirms the potential of systems that enable millimeter wave backscattering, such as those developed by Kimionis and his colleagues.

The breakthrough in backscattering allows IoT communicators to run anywhere with virtually no power at 5G speeds

More information:
A printed millimeter wave modulator and antenna array for backscatter communication at gigabit data rates. Natural electronics (2021). DOI: 10.1038 / s41928-021-00588-8.

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