Physicists at the University of California, Berkeley, have built the smallest radio that requires only a battery and earphones to tune in to your favourite station.
The nanoradio, which is currently configured as a receiver but could also work as a transmitter, is 100 billion times smaller than the first commercial radios, and could be used in any number of applications - from cell phones to microscopic devices that sense the environment and relay information via radio signals. Because it is extremely energy efficient, it would integrate well with microelectronic circuits.
Authors of the nanoradio paper are Zettl, graduate student Kenneth Jensen, and their colleagues in UC Berkeley's Center of Integrated Nanomechanical Systems (COINS) and in the Materials Sciences Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). COINS is a Nanoscale Science and Engineering Research Center supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF).
In the nanoradio, a single carbon nanotube works as an all-in-one antenna, tuner, amplifier and demodulator for both AM and FM. These are separate components in a standard radio. A demodulator removes the AM or FM carrier frequency, which is in the kiloHertz and megaHertz range, respectively, to retrieve the lower frequency broadcast information.
The nanoradio detects radio signals in a radically new way - it vibrates thousands to millions of times per second in tune with the radio wave. This makes it a true nanoelectromechanical device, dubbed NEMS, that integrates the mechanical and electrical properties of nanoscale materials.
Although it might seem that the vibrating nanotube yields a "one station" radio, the tension on the nanotube also influences its natural vibration frequency, just as the tension on a guitar string fine tunes its pitch. As a result, the physicists can tune in a desired frequency or station by "pulling" on the free tip of the nanotube with a positively charged electrode. This electrode also turns the nanotube into an amplifier. The voltage is high enough to pull electrons off the tip of the nanotube and, because the nanotube is simultaneously vibrating, the electron current from the tip is an amplified version of the incoming radio signal. This is similar to the field-emission amplification of old vacuum tube amplifiers used in early radios and televisions, Zettl said. The amplified output of this simple nanotube device is enough to drive a very sensitive earphone.
Finally, the field-emission and vibration together also demodulate the signal.