When people think of Guinness World Records, they often think of oddities like the women with the world’s longest fingernails or most piercings in a lifetime. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency doesn’t exactly spring to mind.
Yet, on Tuesday, DARPA joined the ranks of the record-breaking, setting a world record for the fastest solid-state amplifier integrated circuit. Becoming the first circuit to clock in above 1 terahertz (1 trillion cycles per second), it eclipsed the 850-gigahertz record set by DARPA’s Terahertz Electronics program in 2012.
Made in partnership with Northrop Grumman Corp., DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar said the circuit would allow DARPA to continue the boundaries of what technology can do for the military.
“When you’re at this juncture where this amazing new technical capability is shown, we can speculate about what might come from this advance,” Prabhakar said.
Philip Robertson, an adjudicator for Guinness World Records, called the circuitry — which is about the size of one salt grain — “quite extraordinary” while presenting DARPA and Northrop Grumman with a certificate commemorating the record.
“It took some of our boffins — a British word for very intelligent people — a fair amount of study to understand and comprehend what this meant for the future,” Robertson said.
It turns out Guinness scientists weren’t the only one flummoxed by the actual application of this breakthrough. Bill Deal, a terahertz electronics program manager for Northrop Grumman, said he found a way to expound on exactly what this technology does by explaining it in terms his friend’s 10-year-old could understand.
“If you look at the frequency of your cell phone, it operates at 2 GHz,” Deal said. “We’re building an amplifier that amplifies radio signals at 1,000 GHz. That’s 500 times faster. Let’s compare that to a car going on the freeway. If we took our car on the freeway at 65 mph, and we sped it up by 500 times, we would be going 32,500 mph on that same road. The fastest a human being has ever traveled in a rocket ship is 27,000 mph. So it’s a big achievement, and it’s a different world.”
Dev Palmer, program manager at DARPA’s Microsystems Technology Office, said as the physical dimensions for the circuit shrank and the fabrication tolerances got tighter, achieving a 1 THz speed became a difficult and delicate process. Palmer compared it to tuning the smallest string on a guitar.
“If you’ve ever tuned a guitar, you know that to make the string hit a really high note, it has to be shorter, lighter and tighter,” Palmer said. “You put the string on the guitar, turn the tuning peg and get the right pitch. You turn it tighter and tighter, you get worried that the string is going to snap and poke you in the eye, but you gotta keep turning that knob, and then the string sings. Making terahertz transistors is actually a lot like that.”
Palmer said this technology will have a range of applications, including new high-resolution security imaging systems, improved collision-avoidance radar and spectrometers, with the latter being a focus of the new SCOUT project DARPA recently launched.
Despite the light-hearted nature of being presented with the record, Dale Burton, CTO of Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, said the circuit would go a long way in securing the safety of the nation’s war fighters for decades to come.
“We live in very dangerous times with very dangerous threats, and we need to make another leap to the next generation of technologies and technological dominance,” Burton said. “We need new innovations to constantly stay one step ahead to seek to do us harm.”
Robertson, who admitted that a number of Guinness’ records “don’t have resonance or an impact on everyday society,” said he sees the technology behind this record outliving the record itself.
“I think this one in the future will be quite significant in how we communicate on many different levels and how we deal with the planet,” he said.