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Smaller, more powerful wireless devices are on the horizon

The advent of a new type of synthetic material could soon transform the landscape of wireless technology, making devices smaller and more energy-efficient while requiring less signal strength, according to a team of experts from the University of Arizona and the Sandia National Laboratories. This innovation, grounded in the field of phononics, mirrors advancements in photonics but utilizes mechanical vibrations known as phonons, which occur at frequencies far beyond human hearing.

Paving the way for smaller devices

The researchers successfully integrated unconventional semiconductor and piezoelectric materials to produce substantial nonlinear interactions among phonons. This development, combined with prior achievements in phonon amplification, paves the way for more compact and potent wireless devices, such as smartphones.

“Most people would probably be surprised to hear that there are something like 30 filters inside their cell phone whose sole job it is to transform radio waves into sound waves and back,” said senior author Matt Eichenfield, a professor jointly appointed at UArizona and Sandia. 

These necessary transformations, facilitated by piezoelectric filters, are currently limited by the disparate materials used, which increases the physical size and diminishes the efficiency of devices.

Giant phononic nonlinearities

“Normally, phonons behave in a completely linear fashion, meaning they don’t interact with each other. It’s a bit like shining one laser pointer beam through another; they just go through each other,” noted Eichenfield.  

However, the research demonstrated what he describes as “giant phononic nonlinearities,” where phonons interact much more intensely than in standard materials, akin to one beam of light changing the frequency of another when combined.

This new class of phononic materials enables remarkable control over phonons, akin to manipulating electrons with traditional transistors. This could eventually consolidate all radio frequency signal processing components into a single microchip, dramatically reducing the size and improving the functionality of consumer electronics.

“When we combined these materials in just the right way, we were able to experimentally access a new regime of phononic nonlinearity,” said lead author Lisa Hackett, a Sandia engineer. “This means we have a path forward to inventing high-performance tech for sending and receiving radio waves that’s smaller than has ever been possible.”

A giant leap toward smaller devices

By integrating a thin layer of the semiconductor indium gallium arsenide with lithium niobate – a material commonly used in piezoelectric devices – the team created a medium where acoustic waves can induce significant changes in electrical charge distribution, enabling precise control over the interactions of these waves.

“The effective nonlinearity you can generate with these materials is hundreds or even thousands of times larger than was possible before, which is crazy. If you could do the same for nonlinear optics, you would revolutionize the field,” explained Eichenfield.

This breakthrough not only signifies a leap forward in phononic research but also heralds a new era in consumer electronics, where devices might soon be significantly smaller, more efficient, and capable than ever before.

More about smaller electronic devices

Electronic devices have been shrinking in size over the years, thanks to advances in technology and engineering. This trend, often referred to as miniaturization, is driven by improvements in microchip design and the ability to pack more transistors into smaller spaces, a phenomenon described by Moore’s Law. 

As a result, the components that go into everything from computers and smartphones to cameras and wearables have become more compact, efficient, and powerful.

Innovations in technology 

Material science also plays a crucial role in this trend. Innovations such as nanotechnology and the development of new, lighter materials have allowed for thinner, yet more durable devices. Simultaneously, improvements in battery technology have helped make devices not only smaller but also longer-lasting on a single charge.

Global demand

The push towards smaller devices isn’t just about portability or aesthetics; it also reflects the demands of a global market where consumers increasingly favor sleek, space-saving designs that fit into a mobile lifestyle. Moreover, smaller devices often mean less material usage and potentially lower energy consumption, aligning with growing environmental concerns.


As devices shrink, they open up new applications and markets, such as implantable medical devices and sophisticated drones that can navigate previously inaccessible areas. Despite the advantages, miniaturization presents challenges such as overheating, limited repairability, and complexities in manufacturing, which the industry continues to address through innovation and design optimization.

The study is published in the journal Nature Materials.


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