Tiny circulator in phones could double bandwidth

Freed from a reliance on magnetic effects, the new circulator has a much smaller footprint while also using less expensive and more common materials. (Credit: Cockrell School of Engineering/UT Austin)

Engineers have found a way to dramatically shrink a critical component of cellphones and other wireless devices.

A much smaller, more efficient radio wave circulator has the potential to double the useful bandwidth in wireless communications by enabling full-duplex functionality—meaning devices can transmit and receive signals on the same frequency band at the same time.

The researchers did it by ditching the magnets.

“We are changing the paradigm with which isolation and two-way transmission on the same frequency channel can be achieved. We have built a circulator that does not need magnets or magnetic materials,” says Andrea Alu, an associate professor at the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

comparison chart: radio wave circulators

Since the advent of wireless technology 60 years ago, magnetic-based circulators have been in principle able to provide two-way communications on the same frequency channel, but they are not widely adopted because of the large size, weight, and cost associated with using magnets and magnetic materials.

Freed from a reliance on magnetic effects, the new circulator has a much smaller footprint while also using less expensive and more common materials.

The prototype circulator is 2 centimeters in size—more than 75 times smaller than the wavelength of operation. The circulator may be further scaled down to as small as a few microns, according to the researchers.

The design is based on materials widely used in integrated circuits such as gold, copper, and silicon, making it easier to integrate in the circuit boards of modern communication devices.

How it works

The researchers’ device works by mimicking the way magnetic materials break the symmetry in wave transmission between two points in space, a critical function that allows magnetic circulators to selectively route radio waves.


With the new circulator, the researchers accomplish the same effect, but they replaced the magnetic bias with a traveling wave spinning around the device.

Another unique feature is that the new circulator can be tuned in real time over a broad range of frequencies, a major advantage over conventional circulators.

“With this technology, we can incorporate tunable nonreciprocal components in mobile platforms,” says Nicholas Estep, lead researcher and a doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering. “In doing so, we may pave the way to simultaneous two-way communication in the same frequency band, which can free up chunks of bandwidth for more effective use.”

Fewer dropped calls

For telecommunications companies, which pay for licenses to use frequencies allotted by the US Federal Communications Commission, a more efficient use of the limited available bandwidth means significant cost advantages.

Additionally, because the design of the circulator is scalable and capable of circuit integration, it can potentially be placed in wireless devices.

“We envision micron-sized circulators embedded in cellphone technology. When you consider cellphone traffic during high demand events such as a football game or a concert, there are enormous implications opened by our technology, including fewer dropped calls and clearer communications,” Estep says.

The circulator also could benefit other industries that currently use magnetic-based circulators. For instance, circulators used in phased arrays and radar systems for aircraft, ships, and satellites can be extremely heavy and large, so minimizing the size of these systems could provide significant savings.

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research supported the work, which is described in the journal Nature Physics.

Source: UT Austin