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Antenna breakthrough could lead to smaller IoT devices

Steve Rogerson
August 31, 2017

Researchers at Northeastern University in Massachusetts have developed an antenna that can be up to a thousand times smaller than conventional antennas, making them suitable for small IoT devices and medical implants.
In a paper published online in Nature Communications, Nian Sun (pictured), professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern, and his colleagues describe a new approach to designing antennas. The discovery enables researchers to construct antennas that are up to a thousand times smaller than currently available antennas, Sun said.
“A lot of people have tried hard to reduce the size of antennas,” Sun said. “This has been an open challenge for the whole society. We looked into this problem and thought, ‘why don’t we use a new mechanism?’”
Traditional antennas are built to receive and transmit electromagnetic waves, which travel up to the speed of light. But electromagnetic waves have a relatively long wavelength. That means antennas must maintain a certain size to work efficiently with electromagnetic radiation.
Instead of designing antennas at the electromagnetic wave resonance – so they receive and transmit electromagnetic waves – researchers tailored the antennas to acoustic resonance. Acoustic resonance waves are roughly ten thousand times smaller than electromagnetic waves. This translates to an antenna that’s one or two orders of magnitude smaller than even the most compact antennas available today.
Since acoustic resonance and electromagnetic waves have the same frequency, the new antennas would still work for mobile phones and other wireless communications devices. And they would provide the same instantaneous delivery of information. In fact, researchers found their antennas performed better than traditional kinds.
Tiny antennas have big implications, especially for IoT devices, and in the biomedical field. For example, Sun said the technology could lead to better bio-injectable, bio-implantable or even bio-digestible devices that monitor health.
One such application that neurosurgeons are interested in exploring is a device that could sense neuron behaviour deep in the brain. But bringing this idea to life has stumped researchers, until now.
“Something that’s millimetres or even micrometres in size would make biomedical implantation much easier to achieve, and the tissue damage would be much less,” Sun said.