Superconducting microelectronics developer Hypres today announced it has successfully demonstrated the operation of high-performance circuits in a Lockheed Martin compact, four-stage pulse-tube cryocooler—a design that Hypres officials believe can be used for the commercialization the Hypres Digital-RF product line.

By leveraging the power of a superconducting niobium chip, the Hypres transceiver solution is designed to directly digitize RF signals for an entire swath of spectrum—even several hundred MHz wide—enabling a frequency-agile platform that industry experts have envisioned for software-defined radio (SDR) and cognitive-radio applications.

However, the Hypres chip is designed to operate at a temperature of 4 degrees Kelvin (-452 degrees Fahrenheit) and previous cryocooler designs typically were too large, operationally cumbersome and power inefficient to be used for widespread terrestrial RF networks. Hypres CEO Richard Hitt said he believes the new Lockheed Martin cryocooler design—eventually expected to be the size of a microwave oven—can address these issues.

“To have these things out in any type of a network in large numbers, the efficiencies of them is going to have to be fine-tuned,” Hitt said during an interview with Urgent Communications. “Until now, just doing digital superconducting in a cryocooler has been remarkable enough that people have taken the available cryocoolers, done the adaptation to add the digital electronics and have been happy with the results.

“The Lockheed system and the work we did on it proves that a pulse-tube design could be finely tuned to maximize the efficiency of the thing, then it could be continued to be tuned once it is deployed. That’s a pretty important statement to make.”

The demonstration was conducted as part of U.S. military project, and Hitt said he expects the Hypres solution to be deployed first in military environments, such as on large vessels that need a low-maintenance, high-performance RF system. But the same solution is easily adaptable to the commercial and mission-critical base-station markets, he said.

“Once you get chips that work, which we have, the rest of the exercise becomes packaging, the expense of the system and its usability in the field is almost all related to the packaging,” Hitt said. “Our goal here is to design a package that we can use in a wide variety of commercial and military applications and not alter the physical package very much. This thing has the versatility to do that—we can put one chip in it or we can put dozens of chips in it potentially, and the physical package isn’t going to change a lot.”

Ted Nast, a cryocooler expert and fellow at Lockheed Martin, echoed this sentiment.

“Pulse-tube cryocoolers offer exciting opportunities for a variety of mission-critical applications, thanks in large part to the self-contained nature of the technology and its reduction of moving parts,” Nast said in a prepared statement.

“The demonstration proved that a pulse-tube cryocooler could support the temperatures needed for superconductor circuits, while still offering operational efficiency in a convenient package.”