Associate Professor Maggie Chen builds a future of ubiquitous, tiny, flexible and cheap antennas
As the world’s technologies become more wireless, everyone – from NASA to consumer electronics companies – is on the hunt for cheaper, smaller and more adaptable antennas. One important hub for research in this field is the Texas State University laboratory of Dr. Maggie Chen, who has published over 80 papers in the past 15 years, the vast majority of them on what she calls “flexible electronics.”
This new category of electronics often involves printing circuits with metallic ink on a substrate (imagine an overhead-projector transparency). The result is a 3D-printed antenna with lower materials cost, less risk of breakage and much smaller mass and surface area than traditional antennas.
The size factor is a major selling point for outer space applications. “At NASA, they want to save weight and space,” Chen says. “Because it's lightweight, not like regular electronics, it helps a lot with the payload of the satellite.”
Over the past decade and a half, Chen’s research, which also includes work on transistors and other remote communication elements, has been groundbreaking. “Fifteen years ago, it was very rare for people to do this kind of research—we are the first bunch of people who have worked on this,” she says, referring to herself and her students at Texas State. “There are a limited number of universities in the world that have this kind of equipment.”
One of Chen’s important breakthroughs has been the introduction of the ultra-thin semi-metal known as graphene into the 3D printing process. Graphene, which can be as thick as a single atom, was developed for production just over a decade ago by scientists who would go on to win the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Chen foresees graphene eventually replacing silver, which is used in the vast majority of antennas, for many commercial and public antenna uses. “It has better performance than silver antennas, especially for reliability,” she explains. “Graphene will not oxidize at high temperatures. Also, graphene doesn't degrade if you bend it.”
This flexible property may eventually be applied to daily life in the form of foldable smartphones, Chen says, or in skin tattoos that monitor patients’ vital signs and relay them back to emergency medical personnel.
Regardless of how they are put into use, Chen is confident that her 3D-printed antennas will find a foothold in the marketplace for one simple reason—savings. Because they can be produced cheaply, in great quantity and without wasting materials, her antennas should appeal to manufacturers and customers alike. “The cost is the driving force,” she says. “The cost will be much, much cheaper than what we do now.”