If a team at the University of Delaware has its way, a baseball-sized chunk of ceramic riddled with microscopic tunnels will help your car talk to stop lights and your toaster converse with electrical grids.
Their goal: Figure out how to program an inkjet 3D printer with 12,000 nozzles so its layers of liquid ceramic create a mass that resembles a microscopic waffle grid, through which signals can flow.
Designed by UD Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Mark Mirotznik, the resulting ceramic lens, in effect, will be a series of tiny antennas designed to shoot out high-frequency beams of WiFi, radar or cellphone signals.
Finding an efficient way to control such signals — a phenomenon called beam steering — has been among the greater hurdles facing the worldwide build-out of superfast internet infrastructure, called 5G.
Other challenges include geopolitical ones, notably the United States’ opposition to China-based Huawei’s installation of 5G equipment around the world.
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While the forthcoming 5G network could add trillions to the global economy, Mirotznik if successful will publish his research openly without patenting the design, he said.
“I doubt I’ll get rich on it,” Mirotznik said, then laughed.
Hyped for the past half-decade, 5G should bring enough internet speed and breadth to download whole movies in seconds and enable the connectivity of nearly every consumer product, from toasters to ID cards, tech experts say.
While the ‘internet of things’ has businesses envisioning an economic boom, it also has civil libertarians warning that personal privacy could erode as more everyday items are built with computers inside.
Separately, tech companies are scrambling to market phones capable of linking to 5G, even as the network today only exists in small sections of certain major cities such as New York and Hollywood.
In the next few years, it should expand. But, to get there, infrastructure companies need a more efficient way to send signals across a city, said Danai Dror, an executive whose 3D printing company, XJet, is working with Mirotznik.
Mirotznik’s antenna lens, which has no moving parts, is one solution to keep data moving, he said.
“There are probably folks working on multiple solutions for this and this is one of them,” he said.
While 5G waves carry more data than 4G ones, they also travel shorter distances. That means cities will need thousands of antennas to relay 5G signals within lines of sight, Dror said.
Those antennas will need to be able to stand up to the weather, because they will be outside, and not consume much electricity because there will be so many.
“The idea is every stoplight, every lamppost is going to have a 5G capability and be interconnected,” Mirotznik said.
While there are mechanical and electrical antennas that already exist to relay signals, Dror insists that tech developers have been “stuck” trying to build an antenna that consumes no energy.
“People had talked about passive technologies for a long time now,” Dror said. “But Mark is way ahead with his software and his approach.”
Mirtoznik created a plastic prototype of the antenna lens. The next step is to figure out how to build the device out of ceramic, complete with hollowed out tiny, hair-sized passageways.
The only feasible way is to use a 3D printer, Mirotznik said.
“You can’t mold it,” he said.
A relatively new technology in its own right, 3D printing uses computerized blueprints to layer liquefied materials into shapes. While it has become popular with plastics, ceramic 3D printing still is rare, Dror said.
The truck-sized printer within a UD lab at Evans Hall is the second ceramic one from any maker to be installed in the United States, Drore said. The other is in Ohio, at the Youngstown Business Incubator.
If the team is successful in developing the lens, Dror’s Israeli-based company could have an edge on a new revenue stream over other 3D printing companies, he said.
“It opens our technology to mass production to something that is almost a proven future,” he said. “I don’t think anybody will want to go back to 4G.”
Contact Karl Baker at email@example.com or (302) 324-2329. Follow him on Twitter @kbaker6.