Filter futures; SAW, BAW and emerging wireless standards

November 22, 2013 // By Robert Aigner

A high-end smartphone must filter the transmit and receive paths for 2G, 3G, and 4G wireless access methods in up to 15 bands, as well as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and the receive path of GPS receivers. Signals in the receive paths must be isolated from one another. They also must reject other extraneous signals whose causes are too diverse to list. To do so, a multi-band smartphone will require eight or nine filters and eight duplexers. Without acoustic filter technology, it would be impossible.

SAW: Mature but Still Growing

Surface acoustic wave (SAW) filters are used widely in 2G receiver front ends and in duplexers and receive filters. SAW filters combine low insertion loss with good rejection, can achieve broad bandwidths and are a tiny fraction of the size of traditional cavity and even ceramic filters. Because SAW filters are fabricated on wafers, they can be created in large volumes at low cost. SAW technology also allows filters and duplexers for different bands to be integrated on a single chip with little or no additional fabrication steps.

The piezoelectric effect that exists in crystals with a certain symmetry is the ‘motor’ as well as the ‘generator’ in acoustic filters. When applying a voltage to such a crystal, it will deform mechanically, converting electrical energy into mechanical energy. The opposite occurs when such a crystal is mechanically compressed or expanded. Charges form on opposite faces of the crystalline structure, causing a current to flow in the terminals and/or voltage between the terminals. This conversion between electrical and mechanical domains happens with extremely low energy loss, achieving exceptional efficiency of 99.99% in both directions.

In solid materials, alternating mechanical deformation creates acoustic waves that travel at velocities of 3,000 to 12,000 m/sec. In acoustic filters, the waves are confined to create standing waves with extremely high quality factors (Q) of several thousand. These high-Q resonances are the basis of the frequency selectivity and low loss that acoustic filters achieve.

In a basic SAW filter (see Figure 1), an electrical input signal is converted to an acoustic wave by interleaved metal interdigital transducers (IDTs) created on a piezoelectric substrate, such as quartz, lithium tantalite (LiTaO 3) or lithium niobate (LiNbO 3). Its slow velocity makes it possible to fit many wavelengths across the IDTs in a very small device.

Figure 1: Basic SAW Filter

SAW filters, however, have limitations. Above about 1 GHz, their selectivity declines, and at about 2.5 GHz their use is limited to applications that have modest performance requirements. SAW devices also are notoriously sensitive to temperature changes: the stiffness of the substrate material tends to decrease at higher temperatures and acoustic velocity diminishes.

An alternative approach is to use temperature-compensated (TC-SAW) filters, which include over-coating of the IDT structures with layers that increase stiffness at higher temperatures. While an uncompensated SAW device typically has a temperature coefficient of frequency (TCF) of about -45 ppm/ ºC, TC-SAW filters reduce this to -15 to -25 ppm/ ºC . However, because the process doubles the number of required mask layers, TC-SAW

RF interference has always been an inhibitor of communications, requiring designers to perform major feats to keep it in check. Today’s wireless devices must not only reject signals from other services but from themselves, too, as the number of bands packed inside each device increases.
Triquint, filters, SAW, BAW