Wireless devices consume more than just the hours users spend scrolling through social media, streaming podcasts and TV shows, and playing games. The networks used to connect these devices also consume a large amount of energy — up to a few thousand terawatt-hours annually worldwide, which is enough to power 70 million homes for one year.

UCF researcher Kenle Chen aims to enhance the energy efficiency of these systems with the support of a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Addressing Systems Challenges through Engineering Teams (ASCENT) program. ASCENT launched in 2020 with the goal of developing novel solutions to problems surrounding engineering systems and networks. It also promotes collaborations among researchers across three electrical engineering clusters: Communications, Circuits and Sensing Systems; Electronics, Photonics and Magnetic Devices; and Energy, Power, Control and Networks.

Chen, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has teamed up with researchers from Purdue University and the University of California, Santa Barbara, to complete the project. They are one of seven teams selected for the ASCENT award this year.

Kenle Chen
Kenle Chen is an assistant professor in UCF’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

”I feel very excited about receiving this competitive award that will provide us with a four-year funding support to perform this highly collaborative research,” Chen says. “Our project well aligns with the 2023 ASCENT program theme, Enhanced Energy Efficiency for Climate Change Mitigation, which will engender not only scientific advances but also broadened societal impacts.”

The team plans to incorporate advanced semiconductor technologies and artificial intelligence into a millimeter-wave radio system. This system widens the bandwidth of wireless communications for each user but also increases energy consumption.

To address this, Chen and his research group will develop advanced millimeter-wave power amplification circuits using highly efficient wide-bandgap semiconductors, which will be further integrated into a millimeter-wave radio system based on an antenna array. These circuits are also designed with ‘self-healing’ reconfigurability against variations in operational environments and system conditions.

Researchers from Purdue will lend their expertise to the semiconductor portion of the research. They will focus on the packaging of the technology and the assembly of silicon and non-silicon materials in microchips and antennas through a process called heterogeneous integration. They’ll also find solutions to keep the high-powered semiconductor devices cool in extreme temperatures.

UC Santa Barbara researchers will collaborate with Chen on the AI portion of the project, allowing for the autonomous control of advanced power amplification circuits. They will develop the algorithm and framework and test and train the AI for a faster processing time. This use of AI in wireless systems is fairly new in the industry, Chen says.

“We’re in the very early stages of integrating AI in this capacity,” Chen says. “In the future, we need to dynamically adjust the control settings of radio-frequency circuits because in many emerging wireless radio systems like 5G and 6G, the high complexity and compactness of the system make the operational environment subject to constant fluctuations.”

Chen also plans to integrate his research discoveries from the project into his course curriculum and to involve graduate students in the work in his lab. Although the four-year project will take time to develop, it could ultimately leave a lasting impact on the industry, he says.

“If the proposed new technologies can be successfully and realistically applied, we can save a huge amount of energy in wireless communications, possibly in the order of tens to hundreds of terawatt-hours per year,” Chen says. “Every industry is expected be carbon neutral by 2050, so we need to move progressively toward that target over time.”

Chen joined the UCF Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in 2018 as an assistant professor. He earned his doctoral degree in electrical engineering from Purdue University in 2013 and is a 2023 recipient of the NSF CAREER award.