Discovery paves the way for a new generation of sensing and imaging devices

By M. Abraham

Researchers at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science have achieved a new world record in high-frequency submillimeter waves. The record-setting 324-gigahertz frequency was accomplished using a voltage-controlled oscillator in a 90-nanometer complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) integrated circuit, a technology used in chips such as microprocessors.

The signal generator, which produces frequencies nearly 70 percent faster than other CMOS oscillators, paves the way for a new generation of submillimeter devices that could someday be used in high-resolution sensors on spacecraft, and here on Earth in a new class of highly integrated and lightweight imagers that could literally cut through fog and see through clothing fabrics. And because frequency ultimately means bandwidth, “the higher frequency increases the available bandwidth,” said M.C. Frank Chang, UCLA professor of electrical engineering, who leads the research team. That greater bandwidth translates into faster communication speeds.

With traditional 90-nanometer CMOS circuit approaches, it is virtually impossible to generate usable submillimeter signals with a frequency higher than about 190 GHz. That’s because conventional oscillator circuits are nonlinear systems in which increases in frequency are accompanied by a corresponding loss in gain or efficiency and an increase in noise, making them unsuitable for practical applications.

Chang, who also is director of UCLA Engineering’s High Speed Electronics Laboratory, and researchers Daquan Huang and Tim LaRocca skirted the issues using a technological sleight of hand — and some unique analog signal processing.

The researchers first generated a voltage-controlled CMOS oscillator, or CMOS VCO, operating at a fundamental frequency of 81GHz with phase-shifted outputs at 0, 90, 180 and 270 degrees, respectively. By linearly superimposing these four (or quadruple) rectified phase-shifted outputs in real time, they ultimately generated a waveform with a resultant oscillation frequency that is four times the fundamental frequency, or 324 GHz. This new frequency generation method, in principle, has high DC-to-RF conversion efficiency (up to 8 percent) and has low phase noise, comparable to that of the constituent fundamental oscillation signal.

“When you go back to the fundamental math and physics, you find that you can do this and not pay much of a price. That’s the beauty of it,” Chang said. “If you use digital signal processing, you can synthesize this and synthesize that, but you pay the price for it with a loss of energy.”

The measurement test of the 324-GHz signal was conducted by engineers Lorene Samoska and Andy Fung of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, which has facilities to test these high-frequency ranges. JPL and NASA are particularly interested in submillimeter technology because submillimeter-range wavelengths are ideal for deep-space remote sensing — there is no atmosphere in space to dampen the signals. Higher frequency signals, in turn, produce higher resolution images. “You can see better,” Chang said.

CMOS technology makes future submillimeter-wave devices easily integrated with advanced microprocessors on-chip and can be very lightweight, so these sensors would be portable. “Foot soldiers could backpack them into the battle zone, for example,” Chang said.

Main Image: Professor Frank Chang and Researchers Tim LaRocca and Daquan Huang