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Professor Copies the Inner Ear, Invents a Tiny Universal Radio Chip

bio-electronics-both

Your TV, computer, and cellphone are rapidly converging in functionality, with one limiting factor: They all rely on vastly different signals to communicate. But a professor at MIT has invented a workaround, with a new radio chip designed to mimic the human inner ear. It could enable “universal” wireless devices that are able to pick up almost any electrical signal in the air. Their results were just published in the IEEE Journal of Solid-State Circuits.

Professor Rahul Sarpeshkar (above, left) and his graduate student, Soumyajit Mandal (above, right), realized that the human cochlea spiral shape allows it to pick up frequencies that vary by a hundred fold–from 100 to 10,000 Hz. So they recreated the basic elements—the cochlea’s hair cells, fluid, and membrane–in transistors, inductors, and capacitors, respectively. What they produced is a an “RF cochlea chip”, made of silicon, which measures 1.5mm by 3mm and has the vast dynamic range of the cochlea. But it detects signals at frequencies of about a million times higher–that is, FM radio, high-speed internet, cellphone, and TV signals. It’s also faster than any other RF spectrum analyzer and consumes 100 times less power than it would, if the device were to digitize such a large swath of  bandwidth.

Sarpeshkar specializes in the gleaning engineering solutions from the natural world: His group, the Research Laboratory of Electronics, has analyzed the human vocal tract to create a chip that synthesizes speech, and used neuron designs to create digital-to-analog processors. His group has already filed a patent for a universal radio architecture that uses the RF cochlea chip.

[Via MIT press release

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