Forget Wi-Fi, welcome to Wi-Gig

A new type of antenna that makes use of plasma consisting of only electrons could revolutionize high-speed wireless communications.

Mobility is clearly becoming the future of, well, everything, and dramatically increasing the ability of mobile devices to receive and transmit information would only continue to drive innovation and adoption.  Here’s just one example – I am big Howard Stern fan, he’s the reason I have Sirius radio.  He just renewed his contract, but during his negotiations (at least what he revealed on air), he was giving his vision of the future which mostly involved soft SIM cards that would enable people to listen to digital transmissions via wireless networks.  Stern signed a new contract with Sirius (thankfully), but I wonder if part of the reason is that his vision of the future of radio just isn’t ready.  The truth is that there simply isn’t enough bandwidth to go around right now (see previous discussions).  Without enough bandwidth, very few companies want to roll the dice on creating consumer electronics that rely on bandwidth – so innovation is stifled.

But, what if there was super fast wireless?  If devices weren’t limited by connectivity, then it is easy to imagine all the things that could suddenly be connected and made mobile: true mobile TV; true video chat (conference style), etc.  No pun intended, but the sky is the limit, and a new antenna that enables Wi-Gig may be the answer.

According to David Hambling, existing directional antennas that transmit high-frequency radio waves require expensive materials or precise manufacturing, but the new antenna, called Plasma Silicon Antenna, or PSiAN, relies on existing low-cost manufacturing techniques developed for silicon chips.  It has been developed by Plasma Antennas of Winchester, UK.  PSiAN consists of thousands of diodes on a silicon chip.  When activated, each diode generates a could of electrons – the plasma – about 0.1 millimeters across.  At a high enough electron density, each cloud reflects high-frequency radio waves like a mirror.  By selectively activating diodes, the shape of the reflecting area can be changed to focus and steer a beam of radio waves.  This “beam-forming” capability makes the antennas crucial to ultrafast wireless applications, because they can focus a stream of high-frequency radio waves that would quickly dissipate using normal antennas.

There are two types of plasma antenna: semiconductor or solid-state antennas, such as PSiAN, and gas antennas.  Both could fit the bill, but solid-state antennas are favored as they are more compact and have no moving parts.  That makes them attractive for use in a new generation of ultrafast Wi-Fi, known as Wi-Gig.  Existing Wi-Fi tops out at 54 megabits of data per second, whereas the Wi-Gig standard is expected to go up to between 1 and 7 gigabits per second – fast enough to download a television program in seconds.  Wi-Gig requires higher radio wave frequencies, though: 60 gigahertz rather than the 2.4 GHz used by Wi-Fi.  Signals at these frequencies disperse rapidly unless they are tightly focused, which is where PSiAN comes in.  Ian Russell, business development director at Plasma Antennas, says that PSiAN is small enough to fit inside a cellphone.  “Higher frequencies mean shorter wavelengths and hence smaller antennas,” he says.  “The antenna actually becomes cheaper at the smaller scales because you need less silicon.”

The antennas shouldn’t raise any health issues, as they are covered by existing safety standards.  The narrow beam means there is less “overspill” of radiation than with existing omnidirectional antennas.  Russell says that PSiAN could be commercially available within two years.  At present, getting movies and high-quality images on and off our smartphones almost certainly means hooking them into a computer, but as the demands for such content increases, the only way to break the wire is going to be an ultrafast wireless connection.  When it comes, it may very well be in the form of plasma.

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