The Internet of the Future: All-Optical Transmission

Steve Crocker, a computer scientist who worked on ARPANET has stated “There has not been, in the entire history of mankind, anything that has changed so dramatically as computer communications, in terms of the rate of change.”

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It can be easy to become relaxed to the constant progress in technology and the internet-driven transformation of everyday life. In recent years, internet access availability and connection speeds have exponentially increased causing many industries to morph and grow.

Many technological advances have sparked booms into other industries including dial-up, which established email, online retail and an unprecedented access to knowledge. Broadband sparked the creation of social media, transformed music, video and news outlets and transferred mass data into the cloud.

It is the job of futurologists to estimate ways in which the next generation of data transmission will shape society. But there’s no doubt regarding the need to pursue this growth and the way forward, in theory, is straightforward.

One way, is that data highways in the future will exclusively transport optical signals between the source and receiver.

It has been long known that electronic cables are inadequate and carry a physical data transfer to 10 limit of gigabits per second. Fibre-optic cables, however, have not yet reached a plateau. Researcher from the University of Southampton achieved a record throughput of 73.7 terabits per second by using a fibre optic cable containing a single hollow photonic crystal. This rate has the potential to be increased further by stacking signals in a single cable at different wavelengths (known as wave-division multiplexing) and by braiding multiple cores.

In long-haul transmission, although the principles of optical transmission are sound, small scale bottlenecks in current infrastructure are proving to be problematic. When the signal reaches its intended destination, it becomes a part of a micro network that must be rerouted to the final address. This procedure works by modify the signal wavelength, with affecting the data itself.

Currently, the wavelength conversion process is tackled electronically and can be a brick wall to hurtling data streams. The inbound signal has to be detected by a sensor, transformed into an electronic signal, processed to remove degradation and regenerated at the required wavelength using a tuneable laser. The transmission process is slow and possess a real problem. The process can be even slower when encoded files are converted as they contain changes in amplitude and phase which must be addressed.  Electronic processing is a weak link in the chain.

To keep up with demands, internet of the future must be high-speed and be entirely optical in nature- from source to destination. So far, it has not been possible to build all-optical wavelength converters. Attempts so far have not been able to convert both amplitude and phase encoded signals and some are limited by the range of output wavelengths that they can convert.

However, it has recently emerged that a group of academic researchers at a Welsh university have found a solution.

The researchers have developed a convertor that is centred around a common optical component- a Bragg grating. These are filters which reflect certain wavelengths. The innovation revolves around the way in which both the input signal and a secondary tuneable light source shine together upon the grating. The two lights sources interfere with each other, altering the reflective properties of the filter itself. This causes the reflection of a third light source which is tuned to a desired output wavelength and aimed towards the opposite side of the converter, and is processed as an output. The reflected signal contains the same phase and amplitude-encoding as the original signal. The converter gives a perfect conversion of the incoming data, without delay.

The design is unique and has provided a huge technological step forward as an all-optical converter that possess complete control over the target wavelength, indiscriminate handling of different encoded signal, with no impact on the transmission rate. The researchers have produced an innovation that brings up a step closer to more advanced, next generation network infrastructure, with all of the benefits to society that this entails.

The team behind the converter have filed an international patent application and are actively seeking industry partners for licensing and development. After registering for free, a full summary of the technology and exclusive access of R&D industry professionals is available on IN-PART.

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