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Transforming the World of Microwave Communications with Flat-Panel Technology

Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos National Laboratory engineers have developed a flat-panel technology with exciting implications for the world of communications. They are hoping to take traditional 3-D dishes and microwave horns and replace them with compact, flat panels that take up less space and are far more versatile.

“Our new reflectors offer lightweight, low-profile alternatives to conventional antennas. This is a potential boon for satellites, where minimizing weight and size is crucial. The panels could be easily incorporated onto surfaces of buildings or terrestrial vehicles as well.”

Abul Azad, of the MPA-CINT group at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The new reflector is flat-paneled, and capable of being controlled electronically, unlike traditional antenna designs. With the right technology, researchers believe they could one day achieve customized focusing, beam steering, and numerous other functions that are simply not viable for conventional antennas. There have even been discussions regarding creating miniaturized versions to develop chip-based circuitry that reduces inadvertent signals, a common problem for chip designers.

These new reflectors are made up of a planar surface, on which are a wide variety of different electronic components. When signals are sent to the components, the 2-D can operate almost exactly as a 3-D antenna does. Devices like this are known as ‘metasurfaces.’ This indicates that the characteristics of the device can be altered electronically, as opposed to having to modify the physical shape itself.

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During testing, researchers applied an array of electrical signals to the reflectors and learned that by modulating the metasurface they could effectively control both the frequency and direction of light reflected off of it.

The reflector is also nonreciprocal. Basically, this means that thanks to its unique design the reflector can reduce echoes of outgoing broadcasts from antennas. Additionally, the design helps to protect the circuity from incoming signals that could potentially lead to damage.

Scientists are excited about all the potential applications for this new technology. There are already discussions about developing novel antenna designs as well as one-way wireless transmissions. Engineers are also exploring how the reflector platform could be utilized to develop adaptive optics that actually adjust for distortions to reduce signal disruption.

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