Virtually all cell phone users have at some point experienced the frustration of dropped calls, spotty connections and static that makes your ears bleed. And as we move closer to a 4G wireless world — where mobile connections will no longer be measured in kilobits per second, but megabits — such problems are only to going to escalate.
One company, Elmsford, N.Y.-based Hypres, says it has the answer: superconductors.
Hypres makes superconductor-based microelectronic components. They’re categorized as superconductors because they need ultra-low temperatures (73 4 Kelvin) to work, which require them to be housed in special coolers that are roughly the size of a microwave oven.
These chips are crafted from special superconducting materials such as niobium; they can convert analog signals into digital signals and run at clock speeds around 40 GHz. Hypres’ chips are currently being used by the US military to squeeze out spectral efficiencies.
Hypres was started by a group of former IBM (IBM) employees who worked on Big Blue’s supercomputing initiative in the mid-1980s. In the early days, the people at Hypres focused their products on the test and measurement market, selling their components to, for example, the makers of MRIs and oscilloscopes. In 2000, they shifted gears, and started developing technology components for the wireless communications market. Hypres claims that its wireless technology can eliminate nearly eighty percent of the current analog equipment (and associated cost) on the wireless networks.
“Our products are not going to show up in your cell phone,” Richard Hitt, Hypres president and CEO, told me in an interview earlier today. They’re more often found, he said, in areas with “huge RF complexity,” such as warships, where radars, satellite communications, and other communication protocols compete for attention in small spaces.
The company is currently diversifying even further and focusing its attention on mobile broadband. “The early adopters are the Defense Department, because they have unsolved RF problems and are always chasing the new technologies,” Hitt said.
True mobile broadband systems, such as the high end of 3G and WiMAX, are going to need an entirely different infrastructure compared with that of cellular narrow-band systems. As these new networks are being built, however, they will use some of that same physical infrastructure, namely towers. And as such towers get used by multiple carriers, the resulting multiplicity of wireless signals will result in significant RF complexity.
“What you need is special base stations that can handle these multiple networks,” Hitt explained. Wireless carriers will have to look for newer, disruptive solutions, he argued. The complexity of their networks is going to increase by factor of 1000 — in order to make mobile broadband a profitable business, they’ll need to reduce the cost of bits by a factor of 100. “We can be part of the big mobile broadband rollout in the 2009-2010 time frame,” said Hitt, indicating that he has been having some serious talks with at least a handful of wireless equipment vendors.
So after hearing about superconductors for so long, in a few years, we might actually start to feel their impact on our lives…or rather, our mobile lives.