DARPA wants to cultivate the ultimate transistor of the future

DARPA says DREaM transistors will transmit and receive the large and complex RF signals of the future in smaller packages while consuming less power

dream program
Credit: DARPA/DARPA’s DREaM program

Researchers with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will this month present a program that looks to develop a new generation of radiofrequency (RF) and millimeter-wave transistors to address the power and range requirements for billions of wirelessly communicating devices in everything from unmanned aircraft and home appliances to sensors and smartphones.

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“The same basic transistor types have been dominant since their invention and we have been engineering the heck out of them for 50 years,” said Dan Green, a program manager in DARPA’s Microsystems Technology Office (MTO) and the overseer of the forthcoming Dynamic Range-enhanced Electronics and Materials (DREaM) program. “We’ve gotten a lot out of that approach, but the focus on so few types of transistor technologies and just a few semiconductor materials also has fundamentally limited us in the RF world.”

DREaM transistors will transmit and receive the large and complex RF signals of the future and they will do so in smaller packages while consuming minimal power, Green stated.

The strategic challenge for researchers who become part of the DREaM program, Green noted, will be to rail against the seemingly inescapable performance tradeoffs between four key characteristics of RF transistors:

1) Signal power, which determines an RF system’s range of operation

2) Power efficiency, which determines the size and weight of the power system required to run them

3) Range of frequencies (bandwidth) in which the transistors work

4) System’s so-called linearity, a measure of the fidelity at which a receiver can amplify signals, including weak ones that otherwise would get lost in the cocktail party of signals that a receiver’s amplifier is likely to process

DREaM will also focus on developing new materials that could handle more electrical charge and voltage without degrading than can currently known materials, Green said.

“Ultrawide bandgap materials (UWB) such as complex oxides, which include gadolinium titanate and strontium titanate, and even particular crystal variants of GaN, are among the many possible candidates for research in this area,” DARPA said.

Researchers will also look at unconventional transistor structures, among them nonplanar and filamentous ones, such as ones based on carbon nanotubes, as well as still-to-be-imagined geometries and layouts that are not constrained by the row-and-column transistor formats of today’s integrated circuits, DARPA said.

DARPA will host a Proposers Day for the DREaM program March 29 at the Hilton in Arlington, VA.

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