Superconducting microelectronics technology (SME) has the potential of realizing high speed digital receivers capable of performing direct digitization of radio frequency signals with very low power consumption. An SME receiver is implemented on a single chip using low-temperature superconducting (LTS) Josephson junctions (JJs). The technology provides ultrafast digital switches and logic circuits along with high linearity analog-to-digital converters (ADCs). However, SME technology offers limited choices for realizing reconfigurable analog front-ends. While a tunable inductor using a string of JJs or superconducting quantum interference devices (SQUIDs) can be realized using the SME technology, the main problems with these tuning inductor elements are poor linearity performance and low power handling. RF MEMS technology has the capability to offer highly linear and high power handling tuning elements such as switches and varactors.
To integrate a receiver with radio frequency (RF) front-end on a single chip, MEMS devices need to be fabricated using the same fabrication process as SME technology. In this study, a post-processing technique is developed and optimized to release the MEMS parts of the SME chip while keeping the SME electronics intact. Another challenge is to design MEMS structures that can handle extreme low-temperature working environments. For the first time, superconducting niobium-based RF MEMS dc-contact switches, capacitive-contact switches and varactors are developed employing the SME technology, operating at 4K. The loss in all of the devices is extremely low and the quality factor is quite high when niobium superconducts. The mechanical performance of the MEMS structures are investigated at liquid nitrogen and liquid helium temperatures of 77k and 4K, respectively. The deformation of the MEMS structures and material stiffness at cryogenic temperature are also investigated.
Additionally, more advanced tunable RF circuits are developed, fabricated and characterized, implementing the primary devices. Two types of MEMS capacitor banks are designed, post-processed and characterized using the dc-contact and capacitive-contact RF MEMS switches. The capacitor banks show a very high quality factor at 4K. As well, a single-port-double-throw switch is developed and measured as the building block for switch matrices, showing extremely low insertion loss, and tunable resonators are presented that implement both varactors and dc-contact RF MEMS switches as the tuning elements. The resonators are extremely miniaturized, with a size of o/1600, and tunable filters are developed and characterized using these resonators.
While niobium-based RF MEMS can be integrated within the niobium-layers of the SME technology, designers often do not have the flexibility to select the thickness of the MEMS structural layers. Also, since the fabrication process of SME technology is not specifically designed for MEMS technology, there are limitations in designing more reliable RF MEMS devices. A novel niobium-based micro-fabrication process is developed to integrate gold-based MEMS structures with niobium-based RF circuits. This method benefits from the very low-loss characteristic of superconducting metal niobium while implementing a more matured technology for MEMS structures.
An 8-mask fabrication process is developed that allows the monolithic integration of superconducting niobium-based RF circuits with gold-based MEMS structures. By developing this fabrication method, many low-loss and high quality factor tunable RF devices can be achieved. The challenge is to maintain the quality of the niobium metal layer so that there is no degradation in the critical temperature of the niobium after going through all of the 8-mask process steps. Niobium RF devices integrated with gold-based dc-contact and capacitive-contact RF MEMS switches are fabricated and characterized on alumina substrates using the proposed fabrication process. All devices demonstrate insertion loss reduction due to the superconducting nature of niobium. The measurements of coplanar waveguide transmission lines and low-pass filters demonstrate that the critical temperature of the niobium metal layer is not degraded during the process steps. A capacitor bank is designed, fabricated and characterized showing a very high quality factor. Finally, two types of niobium tunable bandpass filters are presented that employ gold-based dc-contact RF MEMS switches as the tuning elements.||en