UD enters creative partnership to make 5G wireless possible

Rendering of a 5G antenna using a 3D printed ceramic lens.

University of Delaware researchers have teamed up with an Israeli tech firm to manufacture a new antenna that would solve the biggest problems that companies like Verizon and AT&T are having rolling out 5G technology.

Imagine trying to download a YouTube video or refresh your Twitter feed, and a single wall or glass window blocks your connection. That is the challenge facing 5G, the new wireless standard that is so high-frequency it can’t travel far without hitting obstacles. 

Verizon began selling the first 5G phone in April and AT&T has been quietly running trials of a 5G hotspot with businesses in 19 cities. The problem is that each cell site tends to only provide coverage within 300 600 feet of their cell sites, and there are a lot of struggles with downloads.

This means new infrastructure is necessary to deliver higher speeds to users. So University of Delaware researchers have teamed up with the Israeli tech firm XJet Ltd to manufacture an antenna that would clear the way for 5G connection.

Xjet and UD are developing Passive Beam Steering technology that uses tiny antennas with special lenses and automatic electric switches to beam the connection from point-to-point across a wide network.

While the technology has existed for some time, manufacturing the superfast antenna is intensive and cost-prohibitive, leading the partners to use a specialized 3D printer that is capable of cheaply and efficiently producing the massive number of antennas needed to make this work.

UD electrical engineering professor and researcher Mark Mirotznik and Xlet Chief Business Officer Dror Danai met at the RAPID + TCT trade show in 2018. The annual event brings together companies from the “additive manufacturing” market, which includes 3D printing and other innovative production methods.

Mirotznik’s research team had developed software to enable the design of small, lightweight 5G antennas, but they were not aware of a manufacturing process that could produce the complex lenses needed for the design.

“What 3D printing has allowed us to do is actually design and realize these lenses that were ordinarily impossible to make any other way,” he said.

XJet had just the machine for the job. The company installed the XJet Carmel 1400 AM System at the university back in January. The room-sized machine uses a process called NanoParticle Jetting that allows for highly detailed fabrication of ceramic — a wonder material when it comes to electronics because it does
not absorb or weaken signals.

“Quite literally, any tiny variation in tolerance could lead to diversion of the signal to the wrong place, and that couldn’t be afforded,” said Mirotznik.

So far, UD has worked with the company to simulate a 5G network within the lab using the antennas. UD researchers are also investigating additional applications for the NanoParticle Jetting process. 

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