The demand for quicker, more functional smartphones has been driving innovation in the mobile communications sector. However, the resulting increase in data traffic has clogged up available bandwidth, which is why an EU-funded project is looking at ways of breaking the information gridlock.
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Smartphones, which offer users a range of functions including camera, GPS and Wi-Fi connection, have become an important tool for business. They are also indispensable to millions who now organise their social lives in the palm of their hand. In the space of less than a decade, smartphones have established themselves as a part of everyday life.
New smartphone models are continually hitting the market, offering continual improvement in function and value. The multi-billion-euro mobile telecoms industry is characterised by incredible innovation, but the sheer volume of appliances has meant that frequency space is more crowded than ever. Today, available bandwidth is crammed with data traffic.
Listening out for new bands
This was the starting point for a new EU-funded project entitled 'Suspended graphene nanostructures' (RODIN), which set out to help smartphones make more efficient use of bandwidth. The solution that RODIN has been working on involves mechanical grapheme resonators and cognitive radios. The project integrates experimental, industrial and theoretical work, and is organised around the concept of suspended single-and multi-layer graphene nanostructures and annealed diamond-like carbon films.
"In your mobile/smartphone, several frequencies are used," explains project coordinator Andreas Isacsson. "If you move between countries, your smartphone will need to find different bands, which can be a problem. With increases in data traffic, you could soon find yourself out of bandwidth."
Some frequencies, however, are not always occupied, and this is where cognitive radios come in. A cognitive radio is a transceiver which automatically detects available channels across a wireless spectrum and changes its transmission or reception parameters as needed. This allows more wireless communications to run concurrently in a given spectrum band at one location.
What Dr Isacsson and his project partners have been working on is the development of a tuneable gigahertz filter, made of mechanical graphene resonators, which will enable a cognitive radio in your smartphone to sense which bands are free, and switch over accordingly.
Graphene, which is made of carbon atoms arranged as an atom-thick mesh, is incredibly strong, and has proven to be a fantastic conductor. The RODIN consortium has been engineering this substance to make nano-mechanical graphene for the resonators. In particular, attention has been paid to engineering and measuring the mechanical and electromechanical properties of graphene, through sculpting the suspended structures to desired shapes as well as using thermal post-processing methods.
Resonating with business
"This consortium has expertise in several areas," explains Dr Isacsson. "There are those making the resonators, others making the graphene, the components and so on. We recently had a meeting where we converged on the design, so hopefully we will have the prototype device in a few months."
Rodin has also been characterised by the involvement of mobile telecom businesses, some of which have come in towards the end of the project to assess the potential for commercialisation. With less than a year left, the idea is to see if this project has the potential to go further, and to decide whether there may be a need to secure intellectual property rights. According to Dr Isacsson, this project is high risk for industry, but it is potentially high gain, too.
This project has huge potential benefits for end-users. "You'll be able to have a smarter phone than all the others!" claims Dr Isacsson. "Cognitive radio will give smartphones a big edge by enabling them to find speedier data transfer rates."