RF Cochlea Chip 'Seashell Radio'

A chip dubbed the Radio Frequency Cochlea has been developed by MIT engineers Rahul Sarpeshkar, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and his graduate student, Soumyajit Mandal. The device can be incorporated into a universal or software radio architecture that is designed to efficiently process a broad spectrum of signals including cellular phone, wireless Internet, FM, and other signals.


(Radio Frequency Cochlea chip)

The RF cochlea mimics the structure and function of the biological cochlea, which uses fluid mechanics, piezoelectrics and neural signal processing to convert sound waves into electrical signals that are sent to the brain.

As sound waves enter the cochlea, they create mechanical waves in the cochlear membrane and the fluid of the inner ear, activating hair cells (cells that cause electrical signals to be sent to the brain). The cochlea can perceive a 100-fold range of frequencies -- in humans, from 100 to 10,000 Hz. Sarpeshkar used the same design principles in the RF cochlea to create a device that can perceive signals at million-fold higher frequencies, which includes radio signals for most commercial wireless applications.

The RF cochlea, embedded on a silicon chip measuring 1.5 mm by 3 mm, works as an analog spectrum analyzer, detecting the composition of any electromagnetic waves within its perception range. Electromagnetic waves travel through electronic inductors and capacitors (analogous to the biological cochlea's fluid and membrane). Electronic transistors play the role of the cochlea's hair cells.

Fans of science fiction Grandmaster Ray Bradbury well remember the Seashell Radios from his classic 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451:

...in her ears the little Seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in, coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind.

See a fascinating video interview with Rahul Sarpeshkar and a discussion of bioelectronics. Read more at MIT; thanks to Winchell Chung for suggesting this story.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 6/4/2009)

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