Analog RF Radio Chip is Faster than Digital and Uses 100 Times Less Power and Could Enable Universal Radio

Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering Rahul Sarpeshkar, left, and Soumyajit Mandal display their RF (radio frequency) cochlea, a low-power, ultra-broadband radio chip. The chip, held by Mandal, is attached to an antenna, held by Sarpeshkar. The diagram on the computer monitor shows the wiring layout of the chip.

MIT engineers have built a fast, ultra-broadband, low-power radio chip, modeled on the human inner ear, that could enable wireless devices capable of receiving cell phone, Internet, radio and television signals.

Rahul Sarpeshkar, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and his graduate student, Soumyajit Mandal, designed the chip to mimic the inner ear, or cochlea. The chip is faster than any human-designed radio-frequency spectrum analyzer and also operates at much lower power.

The analog RF cochlea chip is faster than any other RF spectrum analyzer and consumes about 100 times less power than what would be required for direct digitization of the entire bandwidth. That makes it desirable as a component of a universal or “cognitive” radio, which could receive a broad range of frequencies and select which ones to attend to.

The RF cochlea, embedded on a silicon chip measuring 1.5 mm by 3 mm, works as an analog spectrum analyzer, detecting the composition of any electromagnetic waves within its perception range. Electromagnetic waves travel through electronic inductors and capacitors (analogous to the biological cochlea’s fluid and membrane). Electronic transistors play the role of the cochlea’s hair cells.

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