Army Research Lab explores new '6G' and beyond wireless network

A dismounted soldier taking enemy fire in a high-intensity combat engagement comes across a vital enemy location, snaps a quick photo of the area with a handheld device and then transmits the time-sensitive intelligence information to other soldiers and ground commanders. Images are then sent to air and ground units in a position to attack, and the enemy asset is destroyed in an instant, long before it has an opportunity to strike U.S. forces.

This kind of scenario represents the type of warfare scenario increasingly receiving attention from Army technology and weapons developers, as success or failure - even life or death - can hang in the balance of networking speed to include computer processing, radio transmissions or other kinds of electricity-reliant communications systems. In short, strong, fast, wide-ranging networking can determine victory in war.

It is with these specific modern combat dynamics in mind that the Army Research Office is funding a government, industry and academic team of researchers now on the cutting edge of establishing a new, high-frequency, highly-promising semiconducting transistor technology.

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The transistor technology involves the use of carbon nanotubes, described in an essay from “Science Daily,” as materials which “take the form of cylindrical carbon molecules.”

Aligned carbon nanotubes, Army Research Office developers explain, offer a new level of processing and transmission performance which not only exceeds the much-discussed 5G technology -- but brings the prospect of evolving toward 6G speeds - and beyond. The potential implications of this kind of technology have few limits, and span both near and far-term possibilities, Dr. Joe Qiu, program manager, solid-state and electromagnetics at the Army Research Office, told Warrior in an interview.

The partnership includes the Army Research Laboratory’s Army Research Office, a firm known as Carbonics, and the University of Southern California. The goal of the effort has been to demonstrate a “carbon nanotube technology that, for the first time, achieved speeds exceeding 100GHz in radio frequency applications,” according to an Army Research Laboratory report.

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These speeds, developers tell Warrior, massively exceed the performance parameters of existing consumer electronics, such as cellphones. Qiu explained that carbon nanotubes are now known to be capable of high-speed, efficient electron transport; they are able to achieve a much greater level of high-frequency transistor technology, Qiu explained.

Aligned carbon nanotubes, according to an abstract from a 2018 essay in “Nature Electronics,” are compatible with what’s called a Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS). (Nature Electronics, November 2018, “Wafer-scalable, aligned carbon nanotube transistors operating at frequencies over 100GHz.”)

Transistor technology, as described by scientists, consists of several layers of materials to include a metal electrode, oxide insulator and semiconductor material -- which is typically silicon. The oxide insulator prevents streams of electrons from moving from the electrode to the semiconductor, something which would cause a “short” of a transistor circuit.

The insulator does allow for an electric field, or region within which charged particles can exert force, to connect the electrode to the semiconductor - resulting in the movement of electricity. Accordingly, a semiconductor functions as both an insulator and conductor of electrons, which partly conducts electrical current, achieving the requisite flow of electricity. One senior scientist told Warrior “a semiconductor will conduct when there is an electric field. It is an electric field that turns things on and off.”

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Aligned carbon nanotubes, the Nature Electronics essay abstract states, enable “highly linear signal amplification and compatibility with Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor technology.”

Semiconducting nanotubes, Qiu explained, are thousands of times smaller than an individual human hair; they can assemble “high-purity semiconducting nanotubes into densely aligned arrays,” the ARL essay states.

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What this amounts to is that these kinds of semiconducting transistors can exponentially improve performance, speed and efficiency of Radio Frequency electrical signals. This, the ARL report explains, can impact a wide sphere of military systems to include radar, electronic warfare systems and a wide-range of combat essential sensors.