This Material Could Change Your Life

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This press release issued August 22 may not look like much, but it announces a new project that -- and I'll word this carefully to avoid drifting into hyperbole -- could forever change the world as we know it.

I'll explain: Gallium Nitride is a semiconductor material that can transform that cell phone in your pocket into a high powered microwave transmitter. It could render the iPhone about as sophisticated as my first digital wristwatch.

The only reason it's not in the mass market today is because manufacturing the material is so expensive that it would cost you as much to buy a cell phone as a new car (although, with the iPhone, clearly that gap is already narrowing).

But this press release announces that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is seeking to seed the development of a low-cost manufacturing technique that will soon make Gallium Nitride far more affordable to produce. Assuming the method works, this will certainly benefit electronics consumers like you and me, but also, not least, the US military.

Military electronics already operate in the highest bands of the spectrum, but are usually powered by very large travelling wave tubes to generate the necessary voltage. Cheaper Gallium Nitride chips are the military's ticket to the next wave of advances in radar, electronic warfare, communications and surveillance technology. It's also fair to wonder if perhaps Gallium Nitride is the key to finally making directed energy weapons as operationally feasible as bullets, bombs and missiles.

Those with long memories may recall this has all happened once before. In the mid-1980s, DARPA seeded the development of a new manufacturing technique to lower the cost of producing Gallium Arsenide semiconductors to replace silicon. The arrival of this material made it possible to pack a transmitter powerful enough to make cellular phones possible in the first place.

-- Stephen Trimble

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