Researchers at the University of Sheffield say they have developed 3D-printed radio antennas that could be used to bring the fastest mobile phone networks to people living in remote areas. The millimeter wave (mmWave) antennas have radio frequency performance that matches those produced using conventional manufacturing techniques.
Antennas currently used to build telecommunication networks are typically slow and costly to manufacture. This is hindering innovation, delaying the development of prototypes and making it difficult to build new infrastructure, say the researchers, while the 3D-printed antennas could speed up the development of new 5G and 6G infrastructure as well as help to open up access to the technologies for people living in remote areas around the world.
The new 3D-printed design enables radio antennas to be made much cheaper and faster using 3D printing without compromising on performance. The technique means antennas can be produced in as little as a few hours, at low cost, but with similar performance capabilities as antennas manufactured in the conventional that much more to create.
3D surface plots created at the measurement lab show a comparison between a traditionally manufactured example, and the 3D printed antenna created by the researchers. The antennas use silver nanoparticles, which have excellent electrical properties for radio frequency, and have been tested at various frequencies used by 5G and 6G networks, up to 48 GHz. Their gain and time domain response – affecting the direction and strength of signal they can receive and transmit – is almost indistinguishable from those manufactured traditionally, say the researchers.
“This 3D-printed design could be a game changer for the telecommunications industry,” say Eddie Ball, Reader in Radio Frequency Engineering at the University of Sheffield. “It enables us to prototype and produce antennas for 5G and 6G networks at a far lower cost and much quicker than the current manufacturing techniques. The design could also be used to produce antennas on a much larger scale and therefore have the capability to cover more areas and bring the fastest mobile networks to parts of the world that have not yet had access.”
Radio frequency testing of the antenna was performed using the University’s UKRI National mmWave Measurement Lab, which can measure systems on chip and antennas to 110GHz, which is invaluable for communications research, such as that carried out on the 3D-printed antenna.