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Movie Downloads In One Second? A New Switch Could Someday Supercharge Your Phone.

A new nonvolatile switch could help cell phones better connect to networks without draining battery life.
Courtesy Deji Akinwande/UT Austin
A new nonvolatile switch could help cell phones better connect to networks without draining battery life.

From Texas Standard:

A new component developed by University of Texas researchers could substantially improve battery life and speed for cell phones of the future. 

The electronics that power cell phones are loaded with switches – components that allow the phone to change networks, receive data and keep you connected while on the move. And in current phones, those switches are always on and drawing power. The component developed at UT is a new kind of nonvolatile switch that will be especially beneficial in phones connecting to 5G networks.

Deji Akinwande, an engineering professor at UT-Austin, led a research team that also included engineers at the University of Lille in France to develop the switch. He told Texas Standard host David Brown that even when a cell phone isn't in use, the switches inside continue to operate, draining the battery. He said his team's switch only draws power when the phone switches between bands – like 3G, 4G, 5G or LTE.

"The current switches that are being used today are so-called transistor switches," Akinwande said. "They need power to be operating, and to be ready to respond at any time."

The new switch is nonvolatile, just like the device's memory, where data is stored.

"By definition, the memory doesn't draw any power unless it's actually storing information or retrieving information," Akinwande said.

Akinwande said a phone equipped with the new switches could download a high-definition movie in a matter of seconds, and would offer a substantial boost to battery life.

The switches are made of hexagonal boron nitride – a compound commonly used in makeup and skin care products. Akinwande's team makes switches from a single layer of an electronics-grade version of the material that is 1 million times thinner than a human hair. 

The switch won't be available in cell phones until manufacturers of the computer chips that power those phones adopt the technology. That could take several years. But Akinwande said the benefits of the switch will become even greater as 5G networks grow more powerful over the next several years.

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