Los Alamos researchers develop a way for 5G to be more useful to the military

If the widely touted fifth generation communications network is to fulfill its promise, it needs a better antenna. Now researchers at the Los Alamos National La...

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If the widely touted fifth generation communications network is to fulfill its promise, it needs a better antenna. Now researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory have developed an antenna they call a game changer for 5G and military communications. The Federal Drive with Tom Temin found out some more about it with John Singleton, an electrical engineer and fellow at Los Alamos.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Singleton, good to have you on.

John Singleton: Nice to be with you. Thank you for having me.

Tom Temin: This is called a LightSlinger. And it sounds almost like a Frisbee for things you can see, what problem are you trying to solve here? Let’s start there.

John Singleton: What we’re trying to solve is making versatile antennas that have advantages over the conventional type of antenna that have been used for the past hundreds odd years to transmit radio waves. So the idea is to make them direct beams of radio waves better to make them say, more conformable in shape, so that they could go on the outside of vehicles to make them adaptable to all sorts of different situations in a way that conventional antennas can’t be.

Tom Temin: Sounds like they could act as if an antenna that could move but be in a fixed position. Is that a good way to describe it?

John Singleton: Yes, you can alter the way in which the antenna directs its radiation electronically, very easily, you can make these new types of antennas, these LightSlingers focus radiation in a way that conventional antennas cannot.

Tom Temin: Yeah, I think of an antenna is a fixed thing that is activated by induction, and then sends out the waves in a single direction. And if they widen then the wider they go, the more people can pick it up and induce the same current in their own antenna.

John Singleton: That’s the sort of thing. So conventional antennas work using electrons. Electrons carry electrical current along metal components. And if you make the electrons’ current wiggle around or oscillate on those metal components, you can generate a radio wave. So what we’ve done is instead of using a current of electrons, we use a thing called the polarization current. The interesting thing about a polarization current is it can be made to travel faster than the speed of light. This means that we can emulate the sort of phenomena you see with sound when you have things like sonic booms and super booms. And focusing of ultrasonic radiation and things like that from supersonic particles. A little bit of explanation about what a polarization current is, a polarization current is just positive and negative charges in a solid being displaced in opposite directions. You might think, well, how can I make that travel faster than the speed of light, it’s not actually the positive and negative charges that are traveling faster than the speed of light, it is their displacements. Think about a stadium wave, you have a load of people sitting in a soccer stadium, and they stand up, and then sit down. And if they do it in a carefully synchronized pattern, they can make this wave go around the soccer stadium very fast, they themselves don’t move very much. They just move slowly. And they just stand up and sit down. But the disturbance they’ve created moves very, very fast indeed. So using this, we can make a current of these things, we can make it travel faster than the speed of light, we can make it accelerate, we can do all the things that people who discovered the sonic boom did in acoustics, but we can do them with with radio waves now.

Tom Temin: Right. So does this require some exotic material capable of that property?

John Singleton: No, the interesting thing about these antennas is that they’re made out of very routine, locally available materials. This is another thing that we were searching for, you probably not taken apart one of those base station antennas that you see for cell phones, they look like sort of vertical loudspeakers inside them. There’s about 300 separate components that are sourced from all over the world assembled in the Far East by hand and stuck together. So there are all sorts of potential supply chain issues with conventional antennas. Here we use for the same sort of antenna, we can make it from just five components. And those components are all materials available locally, such as aluminum, that’s a good insulator, it’s using all sorts of things, G-10, which is a composite material, and then evaporating down copper contacts and strips on these things. So we demonstrated that any small shop that can do CNC fabrication can do the sort of evaporation you do to make circuit boards can make these things and can make them in just five components. One of the things that is holding up new technologies is supply chain assurance. So the good thing about LightSling is you can make them out of locally sourced components in a local shop. I mean, let’s say you’re at sea, you could have a CNC shop in your Navy ship and you can make a new antenna if the other one got got trashed in some way. It’s a way of also simplifying antenna construction.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with John Singleton. He’s an electrical engineer and fellow at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. And what are some of the practical applications of the LightSlinger?

John Singleton: You could use them to replace conventional antennas, say like the base station antennas we talked about because of the way they’re constructed, you can make them mentioned antennas so that they’re very directed, very focused. But what that does is it also makes them quite narrow band, that means they can’t broadcast a wide range of frequencies. Because our antennas rather than being made up of all of these little components that broadcast from sort of points within the conventional antenna, there are a continuous stream of polarization current going through a block of material, they don’t have those issues. So you could probably replace a sort of family of base station antennas each for a different frequency band with a single one of these, it could be directional still, but it could work at several different frequencies at the same time. So that’s the kind of economy thing, they’re also very suitable for 5G local network applications that have been proposed, where you have a little array and rather than sort of broadcasting all of the time to the local houses, it squirts information, successively into adjacent houses, and a little array made out of these lights, things will be very suitable for that sort of application.

Tom Temin: What about the power requirements? Do they take a million volts to be able to do this or?

John Singleton: No, no, they’re very similar sort of efficiency to a conventional antenna, low powers, we’ve done tests out to 76 kilometers, about 50 miles, just using half a volt applied to our LightSlinger antennas. So you could make them very, very high powered, you know, they’re very good at focusing. So if you wanted to make a very focused beam that was high power, you could use them for that there’s nothing inside them that will burn out or destroy itself. They’re very robust sorts of antennas.

One of the nice things about these LightSlingers is they can be made in any shape. We’ve made circular ones, we made long, thin ones, we’ve made ones that look like a smiley face, all of these are shaped optimized for a particular application. They can also be made very thin. So for example, cars are becoming more and more aware of their environment, you could build these LightSlinger antennas into the bodywork of your car and not notice that they were there. And they could be, you know, radaring things around them, they could be communicating with other cars, self-driving cars, and things like that. So they’re just very versatile in shape and form compared to a conventional antenna.

Tom Temin: And now that you have made them in a practical way, are you getting interest from industry, the carriers and possible other users? And how can this be commercialized?

John Singleton: Well, that’s a very, very interesting question. This has only really just come to the fore as it were, we released a paper at the end of 2020, which was about focusing information to a particular point. So that it’s understandable easily at that point, but not elsewhere. And this generated a lot of interest in sort of general science sort of magazines, Research Features Magazine, for example. It also led us to receive an R&D 100 award. So now that the interest is growing, our commercialization division here, the Feynman Center, are still starting to talk to people like like Boeing and things like that. So what often happens with a new type of device like this, for example, the LCD displays that are everywhere nowadays, is you start with a kind of low volume, high margins sort of application of the military application, like radar or something. Some of the first LCD displays I ever saw, for instance, when in the Harrier vertical takeoff aircraft as a head up display, then people see them at trade fairs and go well, that looks like it would be a good thing to fit in your phone or whatever. And you know that the military have demonstrated it works. And so it spreads into the wider market. And I mean, really, our long term aim is there are lots of places in the U.S. where school kids don’t have access to high quality internet. There are lots of places in the Third World where people don’t have access to this because these antennas are economical to produce. They can be made out of local materials in any sort of CNC and circuit board printing shop. We’re hoping that they will spread the benefits of wireless good internet access across the U.S. and across the world, basically embracing everyone and in good communication.

Tom Temin: And do you have patents on this? Sometimes labs get patents and what are the IP issues here, if any?

John Singleton: This is a completely new field of research, very little has been done about emission of radiation by polarization current. There’s a kind of wide open plane of potential applications and things that you could do with these. So we patented the most obvious things like, how do you feed the electrical signals into the antenna? Anyone who makes one of these things industrial will have to do that, you know, and either copy what we do. We’ve got two different ways of doing it one for the very flat panel antennas and one for making all sorts of different shapes of antennas. And so what that does is it enables you to feed the electrical signals in that tell the polarization current to move around.

Tom Temin: Sounds exciting.

John Singleton: It is very exciting. Yeah.

Tom Temin: We’ll see it in practice pretty soon sounds like and maybe even in our pocket or built into our hat one of these days?

John Singleton: Well, one of the things is we done calculations to show that these can be scaled from the sort of things that will fit in your cell phone to things that could replace VLF communication stations that cover 1000s of acres in which you’re used to contacting our submarines and things. So yeah.

Tom Temin: John Singleton is an electrical engineer and fellow at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Thanks so much for joining me.

John Singleton: Thank you.


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