Can You Hear Me Now? Former Bradley Graduate Students and Professor Explore Options for Microchip They Invented

(From left to right) Suresh Sundaram (MSEE ’07), Professor Prasad Shastry and Bala Sundaram (MSEE ’06) hold the active duplexer microchip and circuit board in Jobst Hall’s Advanced Microwave Engineering Laboratory.

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April 4, 2012

Many classes prepare students for the real world, but a microchip designed in a Bradley University graduate class continues to be a passion for two Graduate School alumni.

Electrical Engineering graduate students and brothers Suresh Sundaram (MSEE ’07) and Bala Sundaram (MSEE ’06) collaborated with their project advisor Professor Dr. Prasad Shastry to find a way to increase the wireless range for cell phones and laptops. The result was the invention of a circuit board which reduces the amount of power required for wireless transmissions. The electronically tunable active duplexer integrated circuit may soon replace older chips, increasing reception.

“The microwave signals have to reach the tower so what this chip helps with is to add gain to transmitted and received signals. So if you’re not getting wireless signals in the basement or elevator, this chip can help you get a signal. The signal will be boosted for any wireless system which has two way communication.” Bala Sundaram explained.

The problem with the circuit board, however, was that it was the size of a cell phone and it needed to be the size of a flake of oregano. To address this challenge Professor Shastry designed a class which focused on miniaturizing the circuit board.

Bala Sundaram and Suresh Sundaram worked with Professor Shastry to design and test the circuit board at Bradley University’s Advanced Microwave Engineering Laboratory in Jobst Hall. The Advanced Microwave Engineering Laboratory contains a wafer probe station and a network analyzer purchased in 2004 with a $265,500 grant from the National Science Foundation. TriQuint Semiconductor in Oregon did the foundry work to manufacture the experimental chip.

Suresh and Bala Sundaram were so interested in the project that they volunteered to work on it after the class was finished, resulting in a microchip one thousand times smaller than the original circuit board. The chip is so small that it is difficult to photograph and measures about two millimeters across which, when compared to a penny, is the size of Abraham Lincoln’s tie.

The work was challenging. Suresh Sundaram says the toughest part was designing the layout so that electromagnetic fields from one part would not interfere with another.

“You have to really think,” Suresh Sundaram explained.

Professor Shastry agrees. “The greatest challenge was to make decisions when there are conflicting requirements. So we had to find a compromise,” noted Shastry.

Bala Sundaram says there was little room for error, observing “We started adding complexity one by one and we were worried because it’s hard to debug something so small. We had problems with the circuits at first, but then boom, it all started behaving.”

For the Sundaram brothers, it has been an achievement of a lifetime. “Every designer’s dream is to have your chip fabricated and tested.” Suresh Sundaram explained.

Currently options are being examined for licensing the new product and fine tuning its development, but the inventors believe it is nearing commercial readiness.

Suresh Sundaram, Bradley University Masters of Science in Electrical Engineering ’07, and Bradley University Masters of Science in Electrical Engineering ’06, Bala Sundaram are currently employed as RF Design engineers at the engineering design services company Validus Technologies, in East Peoria. Validus Technologies was started and is owned by Bradley Graduate School Alumnus David Paul (BSEE ’89, MBA ’03).

The microchip follows a circuit configuration in a patent listing Bala Sundaram and Professor Shastry as the inventors. The patented circuit was designed by Bala Sundaram and Professor Shastry as part of Bala Sundaram’s Master’s project. The patent was issued in August 2009 and is owned by Bradley University.