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Sometimes tech heroes’ breakthroughs happen behind the scenes. The name Bram Nauta may not immediately ring a bell. Yet his invention, the Nauta circuit, revolutionized the world of wireless communication. And while the circuit is making its mark on modern technology, the professor is already busy working on the next breakthrough.

Why you need to know this:

The Netherlands has built a reputation as a breeding ground for innovative technologies. Our past is steeped in pioneering developments. This trend continues into the present.

He didn’t know anything about it. “I was dumbfounded when I heard that my invention is massively in phones,” says Nauta, professor of Integrated Circuit Design at the University of Twente with a modest smile.

And yet it is. The Nauta circuit, a filter used in wireless telecom systems, is used worldwide, in phones, tablets, and even in modern IoT devices. Nauta: “Just like sound, you can filter high and low frequencies of electronic signals. My circuit is based on this principle. It is used to extract one data channel from all the channels in the air. When you don’t use it, you will hear all phone calls mixed together.”

Thanks to this invention, a super-fast chip came on the market, at the time many times faster than its predecessors. This made mobile devices more energy efficient, improved the speed of data transport, and significantly enhanced signal quality.

Bram Nauta

A piece of newspaper and a wet pen

Nauta remembers exactly where he was, in 1987, when the idea took root: in the swimming pool. The lifeguard had a newspaper in his hands. He always kept track of stock market prices. For fear of forgetting his idea, Nauta tore off a piece of the newspaper and, with a wet pen, wrote down his idea. “I suddenly saw it before me: a circuit without intersections, because they cause delays. I had imagined a kind of city with a big road right through it. No traffic lights or bottlenecks. And yet it is a functioning system. When I got home, I calculated it again calmly. And then I realized: everything fit. Then I started building.”

Nokia and Ericsson

His work initially remained in the shadows, only years later it came to light that his piece of technology was widely used in the phones of global players such as Finland’s Nokia and Sweden’s Ericsson. “They kept it a secret for a long time because I was working at competitor Philips. The companies didn’t feel like fussing.”

In hindsight, it may have been better that he didn’t know about anything. Because there was no patent on the invention, the circuit could be used en masse. There are no regrets, the professor assures. It wouldn’t have made him much money anyway. “No, I didn’t earn a penny from it. But I do take credit for it,” laughs Nauta.

Another breakthrough

Decades later, he is still not done inventing. His latest concoction could just shake up the digital world for a second time. The idea in itself is simple: do away with amplifiers in electronic devices. These are still widely used to amplify weak signals to a level sufficient to drive other components in the system or to convey information. A crucial piece of technology. At least, that’s what the world thought.

“What I am investigating now is: what happens if you omit the whole piece of amplification? Instead, we make the component that provides the digital signal super sensitive. This may then consume more power, but because you no longer need an amplifier, the system as a whole actually becomes more economical.” Nauta is currently still in the testing phase. He predicts that manufacturers of electronic devices will soon start using it. “Within five years, we will take a radically different approach. And then I can say: we do it my way.”

‘Do things radically different’

Would the professor like to give anything else to young people, students, and soon-to-be inventors? “Above all, think straight. Do things radically differently. I did everything myself, from coming up with the concept to the calculations. I didn’t even have a supervisor at the time. The research paper only has my name on it. Sometimes you come up with the best ideas when you start from scratch. Does a car need four wheels? Who knows.”