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UCF Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering assistant professor Kenle Chen has been named a 2023 National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award winner. Chen is one of three awardees from UCF, along with assistant professors Zhaomiao (Walter) Guo from the Department of Civil, Environmental and Construction Engineering and Luigi Perotti from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

Recipients of this prestigious, early-faculty award exhibit the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education, and lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.

Each UCF awardee is using their expertise to study the core part of a key system — whether it’s Chen, who is redefining high-speed connectivity used in communication antennas, Perotti understanding heart mechanics in relation to health and disease, or Guo’s research on harnessing solar power through electric vehicles.

Non-Magnetic Technology for the Future of Communications

Kenle Chen

Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Project Title: Non-Reciprocally Coupled Load-Modulation Platform for Next-Generation High-Power Magnetic-Less Fully Directional Radio Front Ends

Award: $500,000

Our current radio spectrum, or the range of frequencies used for wireless communications, is quickly becoming congested due to rapidly increased user volume from humans and smart devices, as well as from new wireless technologies, such as Wi-Fi7, 5G+ and more.

Assistant Professor Kenle Chen is developing a first-of-its-kind technology that could alleviate this congestion and allow for more efficient and reliable communications.

In emerging communication systems, an essential device is a circulator that helps control the flow of signals by routing them between an antenna, transmitter and receiver. It can be found on base stations on Earth and on satellites in space.

Traditional circulators rely on “magnetic material,” in which signals travel in one direction under the influence of a magnetic field.

Recently, microchip-based, non-magnetic circulators have become possible, but their performance is far from their magnetic counterparts. For instance, state-of-the-art non-magnetic circulators can only handle watt-level of transmission power, which is far below the usable range of many realistic systems, Chen says.

Chen’s approach unleashes the high-power operation of a non-magnetic circulator in an indirect way that will enable more than 10 watts of signal transmission and allow bidirectional signal flow at the antenna interface. Making the technology completely magnetic-less renders a more affordable solution for wireless industries, Chen says.

“It’s a way to directionally route the transmission signal and receive signal, so it’s a bidirectional process, using a single unified antenna,” Chen says. “It will meanwhile enhance the efficiency of high-power amplifiers, the most energy-consuming unit on all wireless platforms.”

Additionally, current magnetic circulators are quite expensive, large and heavy in size — leading to high manufacturing and installation costs for the system as well as increased maintenance requirements. Chen’s new technology will shrink the weight and size of the emerging radio system.

The significant advantages of Chen’s disruptive technology have created interest from wireless and semiconductor industries. Chen says that when installing a current antenna array high onto a base station, oftentimes a helicopter or heavy lifting equipment is needed.

“If we can get rid of magnetic circulators, then we can very much minimize the size and weight of this antenna array,” he says. “So, workers can just carry it on their back as they install it — saving the overall cost and improving labor efficiency and safety.”

Chen’s NSF project will establish the theoretical foundation and practical design methodologies for the proposed technology. He will demonstrate the effectiveness of his proposal using prototypes that mimic the advanced antenna array system within an anechoic, or echo-free, chamber at UCF.

Chen will be working with his research group and the UCF INSPIRE Lab. His team will also provide outreach programs to K-12 students with videos and lectures about wireless technology.

Chen earned his doctoral degree in electrical engineering from Purdue University in 2013 and worked in the industry before joining UCF in 2018. He credits the four years he spent in the wireless semiconductor sector for fueling his excitement toward developing new research.

“I can foresee that this research will be wildly exciting and enable knowledge for the future 6G systems featured as joint communication and radar,” Chen says. “Beyond the technological frontiers, it will address the nation’s core interests in spectrum sustainability and ubiquitous coverage of high-speed connectivity and lead to economic benefits in the future.”

See the full story by Mikita Nayee in UCF Today