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All-silicon SoC transmitter aimed at next-gen comms tech

Posted: 04 Jul 2014     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:DARPA  SoC transmitter  millimetre-wave  GaAs  GaN 

A team of researchers with DARPA's Efficient Linearised All-Silicon Transmitter ICs (ELASTx) program has demonstrated an all-silicon, microchip-sized transmitter, an SoC that operates at 94GHz. According to them, this accomplishment marks the first time a silicon-only SoC has achieved such a high frequency, which falls in the millimetre-wave range.

A number of compact, high-data-rate millimetre-wave wireless communications systems use ICs made with gallium arsenide (GaAs) or gallium nitride (GaN). These circuits offer high power and efficiency in small packages but are costly to produce and difficult to integrate with silicon electronics that provide most other radio functions. Silicon ICs are less expensive to manufacture in volume than those with gallium compounds but until now have not demonstrated sufficient power output and efficiency at millimetre-wave frequencies used for communications and many other military applications, such as radar and guidance systems.

"What normally would require multiple circuit boards, separate metal shielded assemblies and numerous I/O cables we can now miniaturize onto one silicon chip about half the size of an adult's thumbnail," said Dev Palmer, DARPA program manager. "This accomplishment opens the door for co-designing digital CMOS [complementary metal oxide semiconductors] and millimetre-wave capabilities as an integrated system on an all-silicon chip, which should also make possible new design architectures for future military RF systems."

The all-silicon SoC transmitter uses a digitally assisted power amplifier that dynamically adapts amplifier performance characteristics to changing signal requirements. This capability allows for simultaneous optimisation of efficiency and linearity, a key goal of all transmitters and power amplifiers designed to quickly deliver large amounts of data on the emerging, net-dependent battlefield.

"This SoC can support a range of modulation formats, so it's possible to communicate to multiple systems using different waveforms from a single silicon chip," Palmer said. "Its efficient silicon construction will significantly reduce SWAP [size, weight and power] requirements for millimetre-wave applications, including compact satellite communications ground terminals for frontline troops. These new capabilities will provide connectivity to more service members faster and at lower cost."

The DARPA performer for the all-silicon SoC is Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems.

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