The Pentagon's advanced concepts research wing has attained a crucial technological milestone by building the world's fastest integrated circuit. Clocking in at a full one terahertz, it's 150 billion cycles faster than the previous record. The stage is now set for some unprecedented new technologies.

DARPA, along with its partner Northrop Grumman, has been working on this for years. Nearly a decade ago they hit the 670 gigahertz (GHz) range. Then in 2012 they demonstrated a 850 GHz integrated receiver, an achievement that hinted at the plausibility of developing a 1 THz version. The researchers were looking to take full advantage of the untapped high-frequency band beginning above 300 GHz — the point at which wavelengths are less than one millimeter. But developing the 1 THz circuit proved to be elusive owing to the inability to generate, detect, process, and radiate the necessary high-frequency signals.

As DARPA's Terahertz Electronics program manager Dev Palmer noted at a press conference earlier today in Arlington, Virginia, a main hurdle was in the miniaturization process. He likened it to tuning a guitar string to a high note.

"The higher the note, the shorter and thinner the string," he said. "It's the same thing with transistors. Going up that giant leap in frequency proved to be a very daunting challenge."

That's 1,000,000,000,000 Cycles Per Second

But now they've actually done it. Researchers from DARPA and Northrop Grumman accepted a Guinness World Record for the fastest solid-state amplifier integrated circuit — a ten-stage, 1 THz common-source amplifier that features a minuscule 25 nanometer gate length. The wafers themselves are a mere half the width of a human hair. Moreover, the circuit, which meets IEEE specifications, can actually be put into any number of devices that perform useful work.

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Let's think about this accomplishment for a moment — transistors can now be wiggled at the rate of 1,000,000,000,000 cycles each second. This achievement opens the door to some amazing possibilities, including some the researchers themselves don't even know about yet.

New Areas of Research and Unforeseen Applications

The ability to create integrated circuits at such fine resolutions and extreme speeds will now allow for a number of technological advancements, including:

  • Covert, small aperture communications
  • High-resolution security imaging systems
  • Improved collision avoidance radar
  • Radically improved communication networks
  • High resolution imagery (for dental imaging and diagnosing skin burns)
  • Highly sophisticated spectrometers (for detecting potentially dangerous chemicals and explosives with unprecedented sensitivity)
  • Enhancing spectral communications in space

Most importantly, it will boost communications networks — both in terms of speed and bandwidth — to many times the capacity of current systems.

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"To put our accomplishment into perspective, current wireless networks operate at about 6 GHz," noted Northrop Grumman Terahertz Electronics program manager Bill Deal during the press conference. "To make an analogy, the increase from 6 GHz to 1 THz would be like going from normal driving speed to 32,000 miles per hour."

Much more at DARPA.

Image: DARPA