GE says micro-machinery is the key to more efficient smartphones and faster 4G connections

GE(s ge) wants to take a technology it developed for electrical lighting and stick it into our mobile phones and networks. It has developed micro-electrical-mechanical systems (MEMS) that GE says can replace the silicon switching elements in devices and mobile infrastructure, allowing them to produce stronger, distortion-free signals. Those amped-up signals would in turn power faster and more resilient mobile connections and reduce the radio’s impact on our phone batteries.

According to GE, future 4G technologies like LTE-Advanced will deliver unprecedented speeds — perhaps even in the multi-gigabit range – but in order to maintain those huge big bandwidth gains phones and networks will need highly efficient, low power radio frequency switches. GE believes its new micro-machinery fits the bill.

A die containing 400 MEMS switches on a U.S. dime (source: GE)

A die containing 400 MEMS switches on a U.S. dime (source: GE)

GE wants to resurrect the mechanical relay, a technology that harks back to a time before the transistor, predating even the vacuum tube, in computing and telecom networks. As opposed to semiconductors, which have no mechanical parts, a relay switches electrical current on and off by physically connecting or disconnecting metal contacts.

The principle may be old school, but GE’s MEMS technology certainly is not. By miniaturizing the relay to the microscopic level, GE is able to create switches that can actuate thousands of times in a blink of the eye, which GE demos in the following video by making by making popcorn:


And due to GE’s proprietary materials recipe, GE claims it has overcome the problem of mechanical wear. These switches can operate for billions of cycles in extreme conditions such as high heat before breaking down, the company said. Here’s how GE Global Research Process Development Engineer Chris Keimel explains the innovation:

“We have developed a common device fabrication platform that allows us to pack hundreds of microscopic relays together on a single die for industrial power control or alternately, to create high-isolation, low-loss RF switches for next-generation RF communications products. We’re guiding a transformational change in switch technology and I’m excited to see where it goes next.”

MEMS technology isn’t new to the mobile industry. The sensors in your smartphone are powered by micro-machines, the technology is being in used in new configurable smart antennas, and MEMS is even starting to make it into highly power-efficient device displays, such as the Mirasol technology developed by Qualcomm(s qcom). But the use for MEMS GE proposes here would actually help shape signals passing through mobile devices and network radios.

Specifically, GE claims its micro-mechanical switch could do four things:

  • It could reduce the amount of distortion in a signal, creating a stronger link to the cell-tower and fueling greater speeds and more overall network capacity.
  • It could mitigate the power drain from solid-state switches, giving phones better battery life.
  • GE maintains its switch would isolate signals over separate channels much better, giving a big boost to new LTE-Advanced carrier aggregation technologies that bond together multiple 4G transmissions in different bands.
  • Finally, GE claims that the tiny footprint of its MEMS technology will clear up space in the device, making it easier for smartphone makers to pack more components into their products.

It could take some time before this technology makes it into your smartphone, though. GE isn’t planning on commercializing its MEMS in the mobile industry itself. Instead it wants to license its manufacturing process to the traditional wireless chipmakers, who would in turn sell MEMS RF switches to their handset and equipment vendor customers.