Researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have joined with an international team to engineer and measure a potentially important new class of nanostructured materials for microwave and advanced communication devices.
Tunable dielectrics that work well in the microwave range and beyond—modern communications applications typically use frequencies around a few gigahertz—have been hard to make, according to NIST materials scientist Nathan Orloff. "People have created tunable microwave dielectrics for decades, but they've always used up way too much power." These new materials work well up to 100 GHz, opening the door for the next generation of devices for advanced communications.
Modern cellphone dielectrics use materials that suffer from misplaced or missing atoms called "defects" within their crystal structure, which interfere with the dielectric properties and lead to power loss. One major feature of the new materials, says Orloff, is that they self-correct, reducing the effect of defects in the part of the crystal where it counts. "We refer to this material as having 'perfect faults'," he says. "When it's being grown, one portion accommodates defects without affecting the good parts of the crystal. It's able to correct itself and create perfect dielectric bricks that result in the rare combination of high tuning and low loss."
The new material has layers of strontium oxide, believed to be responsible for the self-correcting feature, separating a variable number of layers of strontium titanate. Strontium titanate on its own is normally a pretty stable dielectric—not really tunable at all—but another bit of nanostructure wizardry solves that. The sandwich layers are grown as a thin crystalline film on top of a substrate material with a mismatched crystal spacing that produces strain within the strontium titanate structure that makes it a less stable dielectric—but one that can be tuned. "It's like putting a queen-sized sheet on a king-sized bed," says Orloff. "The combination of strain with defect control leads to the unique electronic properties."