Smartphones are loaded with switches that perform a number of duties. One major task is jumping between networks and spectrum frequencies: 4G, Wi-Fi, LTE, Bluetooth, etc.
The current radio-frequency (RF) switches that perform this task are always running, consuming precious processing power and battery life.
"The switch we have developed is more than 50 times more energy efficient compared to what is used today. It can transmit an HDTV stream at a 100 gigahertz frequency, and that is unheard of in broadband switch technology," said study lead author Deji Akinwande from University of Texas at Austin in the US.
"It has become clear that the existing switches consume significant amounts of power and that power consumed is useless power, " Akinwande wrote in a paper published in the journal Nature Electronics.
According to the researchers, the new switches stay off, saving battery life for other processes unless they are actively helping a device jump between networks.
They have also shown the ability to transmit data well above the baseline for 5G-level speeds.
The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has for years pushed for the development of "near-zero-power" RF switches.
Prior researchers have found success on the low end of the 5G spectrum - where speeds are slower but data can travel longer distances.
But, this is the first switch that can function across the spectrum from the low-end gigahertz (GHz) frequencies to high-end terahertz (THz) frequencies that could someday be key to the development of 6G.
The research team's switches use the nanomaterial hexagonal boron nitrite (hBN). It is an emerging nanomaterial from the same family as graphene, the so-called wonder material.
The structure of the switch involves a single layer of boron and nitrogen atoms in a honeycomb pattern, which Akinwande said is almost one million times thinner than human hair, sandwiched between a pair of gold electrodes.
The impact of these switches extends beyond smartphones.
Satellite systems, smart radios, reconfigurable communications, the "internet of things (IoT)" and defence technology are all examples of other potential uses for the switches, the researchers said.