New material could revolutionize your smartphone and other gadgets

In Matt Eichenfield's lab at Sandia National Laboratories, he and his team use multiple microwave frequencies to characterize a nonlinear phononic mixing device they built on a silicon wafer. Credit: Bret Latter/Sandia National Laboratories.

In a significant advancement in material science, researchers have discovered a new type of synthetic material that could make our everyday gadgets, like smartphones, dramatically smaller, more powerful, and efficient.

This new development, reported in the journal Nature Materials, revolves around a concept known as phononics, which might sound complex but essentially deals with how certain vibrations, called phonons, travel through materials.

These are similar to how light travels, but instead of light, we’re talking about vibrations that are too high-pitched to hear.

Phononics, like its cousin photonics (which deals with light), is tapping into the laws of physics to push technology forward.

Typically, phonons don’t interact with each other; they pass through each other like overlapping beams from laser pointers.

However, in this new research, scientists have engineered materials where these phonons can interact, creating what’s called “nonlinear phononics.”

This interaction could change the way devices process signals, making the components much smaller than they are now.

Currently, devices like cell phones need around 30 filters just to handle the conversion of radio waves into sound waves and vice versa.

These filters are part of what’s called a front-end processor, which is essential for your phone to send and receive data.

But these filters can’t be made from common materials like silicon, which increases the size and decreases the efficiency of the devices.

By using a special combination of semiconductor materials and piezoelectric materials, which convert mechanical stress into electrical energy and vice versa, the researchers have managed to create a situation where phonons can dramatically influence each other.

This breakthrough could allow for the consolidation of multiple components on a single chip, using acoustic waves instead of traditional electronics.

This means that future gadgets could be up to 100 times smaller than current models due to the reduced need for separate components for processing radio frequency signals.

The team, led by Matt Eichenfield of the University of Arizona and Sandia National Laboratories, and engineer Lisa Hackett, have already demonstrated the essential components needed for this technology.

They’ve successfully built amplifiers, switches, and mixers for phonons, which are necessary for processing signals.

The experimental setup involved a silicon wafer coated with a thin layer of lithium niobate, known for its piezoelectric properties, topped with an even thinner layer of a semiconductor containing indium gallium arsenide.

This combination allowed the researchers to achieve a new level of interaction between phonons, leading to effective changes in how these vibrations can be manipulated and used.

What does this all mean for you? Imagine smartphones and other communication devices that are not only smaller but have better signal coverage and longer battery life.

This technology opens the door to devices that can do more with less, potentially transforming how we design and use our electronic gadgets in the future.

Source: University of Arizona.