Editorial Feature

How Will Photonics Help Digitally Shrink Our World?

Hollow-core fibers transmit data much faster in optical networks than conventional optical fibers. This is a technological advancement that is expected to digitally shrink the world.

optical networks, optical fibers

Image Credit: Funtap/Shutterstock.com

The worldwide lockdown triggered by the outbreak of Covid-19 has demonstrated the dependence of society on digital communications.

Remote working, necessitated by the pandemic, has changed the dynamics of how people work. According to research and surveys carried out by Glassdoor, remote working is not a temporary change. A total of 70% of workers are in favor of splitting their week between the office and home according to the study. Productivity has also been shown to improve with such hybrid work arrangements.

Global greenhouse gas emissions were reduced by 4-7% in 2020 due to the reduction of physical journeys to and from work during Covid-19. Facilitating improved interactive remote working can have a profound effect on decarbonizing the world. Therefore, developing a digital network infrastructure that can enhance virtual working is vitally important.

Digital Communication

Digital communication infrastructure relies on moving data from one user to another. This process usually connects a device to a computing data center, which then re-directs data to another designated user.

Light is used as the data transport medium in current digital networks. Light-based technology is also at the forefront of innovative long- and short-term data storage. Future quantum technology-based communications will also primarily rely on photons, which are particles of light. With such demand placed on optical communication, there is a need to develop efficient transport mediums for network infrastructures.

Current communication networks use optical fibers made of glass to transmit data. Over 100 terabits of data can be transmitted by a single strand of optical fiber in a second. For reference, this is equivalent to sending 50,000 hours of HD video every second.

Current optical communication infrastructure has supported the growing digital economy for the last few decades. Video streaming, online shopping, and multi-player video gaming are some examples of activities that have been supported by the glass fiber-based network capacity. However, faster, higher-capacity optical networks would be required to support future interactive online activity.  Autonomous vehicles, interactive entertainment, virtual reality, and digital markets will all be interactive experiences in the future.

Latency in Optical Networks

The quality of interactive experiences will depend on the time it takes for data to be transmitted between users rather than the volume of data transferred. For example, the roundtrip time it takes for instructions to be sent from an autonomous car to a data center and back. This roundtrip time is also called latency. The success of the next generation of optical communications will depend on reducing latency in the network.

5G cellular networks are also limited by latency. Latency determines 5G network configurations and the cost to maintain a desired level of connectivity. Additional networking equipment is required at each data center location to maintain fast network connections. The expenses are even higher when setting up communication towers in rural locations. Data centers must be constructed in strategic locations that keep the relay signals synchronized. This reduces the flexibility on where the data centers can be erected and the number of masts required, which results in increased construction costs.

Hollow Core Fibers

Innovative technology must be developed and integrated to reduce latency and upgrade the optical networks. To establish the highest level of functionality possible from next-generation 5G networks, latency has to be minimized. Users from all locations should be able to benefit from fast network infrastructure.

Technological advances are explored on several fronts to optimize future optical networks. One promising innovation that is being investigated is to increase the speed that light travels through an optical fiber. Hollow-core fibers have been proven to increase the speed of data transfer.

In hollow-core fibers, light encoded with data is transmitted through an air core, surrounded by glass. Light travels 50% faster in the air than in glass. Hollow-core fibers were developed at the University of Bath and the University of Southampton in the UK. Researchers showed that air-core fibers can guide light more efficiently by blocking transmission through layers around the core.

Backscattering is a property in fibers that impedes the propagation of light. Backscattering occurs when a fraction of the light that is coupled into an optical fiber reflects backward as it propagates. Backscattering causes attenuation of signals propagating down the optical fiber and limits the performance of many fiber-based devices. Hollow-core fibers have exhibited very low backscattering, making them ideal for long-distance optical networking.

Shrinking the Digital World

Hollow-core fibers reduce latency and transmit data 30% faster than conventional fibers. As a result, network infrastructure design can have more flexibility. The distances between data centers can also be increased if necessary to maintain high levels of connectivity. Ultimately, future optical communication networks based on hollow core fibers will be more cost-effective and will shrink the digital world.

References and Further Reading

Sakr, H., Chen, Y., Jasion, G.T. et al. Hollow core optical fibres with comparable attenuation to silica fibres between 600 and 1100 nm. Nat Commun 11, 6030 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-19910-7

V. Michaud-Belleau, E. Numkam Fokoua, T. D. Bradley, J. R. Hayes, Y. Chen, F. Poletti, D. J. Richardson, J. Genest, and R. Slavík. (2021) Backscattering in antiresonant hollow-core fibers: over 40 dB lower than in standard optical fibers. Optica, 8, 216-219. http://dx.doi.org/10.1364/OPTICA.403087

Chamberlain, A. Glassdoor Workplace Trends 2021 | Glassdoor - Economic Research


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Written by

Ilamaran Sivarajah

Ilamaran Sivarajah is an experimental atomic/molecular/optical physicist by training who works at the interface of quantum technology and business development.


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