Imager chip upconverts microwaves to optics

September 27, 2019 //By Julien Happich
Using a standard semiconductor fabrication process, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have designed a microwave imager chip that could one day enable low-cost handheld microwave imagers, or cameras.

In the Optica journal, their paper “Single-chip nanophotonic near-field imager” describes a 2x2mm microwave imager chip containing more than 1,000 photonic components such as waveguides, directional couplers, photodiodes and ring modulators. The 121-element imager integrated on a silicon chip is capable of simultaneous processing of ultra-wideband microwave signals and achieves 4.8° spatial resolution for near-field imaging, while being orders of magnitude smaller than alternative benchtop implementations.

The imager uses four antennas to receive microwave signals reflected from an object. These microwave signals are then encoded into an optical signal and are optically processed, emulating a microwave lens, to form an image. One of the essential components is the optical delay element network used for signal processing, which consists of more than 280 delay cells.

"This system is significantly smaller and more efficient than its electronic equivalent because the delay cells are more than 10 times smaller and more than 10 times more efficient," said Farshid Ashtiani, a graduate student in Aflatouni's group and coauthor on the paper. "They can also operate with significantly shorter microwave pulses, which produces higher imaging resolution."

"Today's practical microwave imagers are bench-top systems that are bulky and expensive," said research team leader Firooz Aflatouni from the University of Pennsylvania, USA. "Our new near-field imager uses optical, rather than electronic, devices to process the microwave signal. This enabled us to make a chip-based imager similar to the optical camera chips in many smartphones."

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