Ending Electronic Gridlock

Think of it as a lazy day’s drive on the boulevard. Traffic is heavy, but you’re moving along at a good clip, making all the lights. Life is good. But then you realize that you have to make a left turn, and suddenly you’re in the left turn lane, inching forward slowly, two cars at a time through every green light.

As Frank Chang explains it, this is not unlike the challenge faced by electrons as they course through your smart phone or iPod. Signals in electronic devices travel along physical circuits. And where these circuits intersect, there are going to be “bottlenecks.”

“Modern systems like the iPhone continue to evolve in terms of thinness,” says Chang, the Wintek chair professor in the electrical engineering department at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the director of UCLA’s High Speed Electronics Laboratory. “But a physical connector is now needed for passing high-speed signals between the board and between the chips. And given the space constraints in these devices, the connections become a bottleneck.”

In light of the public’s insatiable demand for smaller and ever more functional mobile devices, Chang believes it is time to eliminate physical connections altogether. To that end, he has developed a technology that moves signals across these intersections wirelessly, like radio waves. The technology exploits the special properties of highfrequency electromagnetic radiation. At extremely high frequencies, it is possible to produce signals with wavelengths of a few millimeters. At sizes like these, the signals can be generated on a piece of silicon that is roughly the size of a small fraction of a grain of rice.

 

“This technology reduces the complication of building these devices,” says Ira Deyhimy, CEO of WaveConnex Inc., the company founded to develop and market Chang’s technology. “If you go online and look at an exploded view of an iPhone, say, it’s very complicated, with many, many internal connections. Our technology makes it simpler to connect the various functions at a reduced size and a reduced cost.”

Deyhimy became familiar with Chang’s work in millimeter-wave technology while participating in the school of engineering’s Institute for Technology Advancement (ITA). The goal of the program is to bring private-sector entrepreneurs and faculty members together to facilitate the commercialization of research underway within the school. Vijay K. Dhir, advisory board chair of ITA and dean of UCLA engineering, notes that “successful partnerships like this are integral to our goal of being a presence at UCLA to aid novel inventions that have positive outcomes for both the economy and society as a whole.”

In Chang’s research, Deyhimy found a technology that he felt was “ready for prime time.”

Chang, who spent part of his career at Rockwell International, was happy to discuss the commercial potential of his research with the entrepreneur. “My industrial experience has taught me so much in terms of where I should focus my research at the school,” he says. “And I think that is a key factor in my work. I have always been alert and been interested in pushing the technology for commercialization.”

Incorporated in August 2009, WaveConnex is now headquartered in the on-campus incubator at the California NanoSystems Institute.