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Speeding up the internet with photonics

An EU-backed team used photonics technology to boost the performance of existing fibre optics infrastructure, achieving internet speeds of up to 40 terabytes per second.

Digital Economy icon Digital Economy

Photonics – the science of creating, detecting and manipulating light – is driving innovations in technologies ranging from smartphone displays and energy-saving lighting to medical instruments and self-driving cars. Researchers working for the EU-funded ACTPHAST 4.0 project have now also found a way to use photonics technology to increase internet speeds. Collaborating with Irish optical electronics company Pilot Photonics, the ACTPHAST 4.0 research team used photonics to significantly increase the bandwidth of fibre optics cables. The result was internet speeds of up to 40 terabytes per second. Most importantly, these speeds were reached with the existing infrastructure – that is, without having to lay new cables. As reported in an article posted on the ‘Silicon Republic’ news website, the researchers believe the internet to be “reaching a limit in performance and power efficiency.” It’s easy to understand why. The spread of on-demand streaming services and the rising popularity of virtual meeting tools and Internet of things devices (e.g. smart watches, medical sensors, fitness trackers) put more strain on current networks.

Helping data stick to its lane

The technology used in the project is based on a specialised laser called an optical comb developed by Pilot Photonics. The comb laser generates a series of equally spaced beams of different frequencies from one source. Unlike multiple independent lasers, the optical comb laser doesn’t require guard bands to prevent interference between frequency channels. The system uses photonic integration, a technique that fits many optical functions on a single photonic chip. Just like an electronic integrated circuit contains electronic components, so a photonic integrated circuit consists of components that work with light, or photons. “A way to visualise how our photonic-integrated circuits are helping the flow of information between data centres is to think of road to rail. On the road, the lanes must be much wider than the cars because the driver can veer left and right to some degree. This extra lane space represents the guard bands between wavelengths that are used in optical systems today,” explained Pilot Photonics co-founder and Chief Technical Officer Frank Smyth in the ‘Silicon Republic’ article. “With rail, you can pack trains right up side by side because they are on fixed tracks and cannot veer off them. This is like using an optical comb. The trains can’t bump into their neighbours because they are on fixed tracks. Data channels based on an optical comb can’t interfere because the spacing between them is physically and fundamentally fixed.” Using a photonic-integrated comb laser enables them to “combine four, eight or 16 transceivers onto a single chip bringing down power consumption, cost and size,” according to Smyth. “Innovations such as ours solve a real problem for our customers in the industry who need to keep up with society’s insatiable demand for new bandwidth-intensive data services without significant price increases.” ACTPHAST 4.0 (ACceleraTing PHotonics innovAtion for SME’s: a one STop-shop-incubator) is an innovation incubator for European companies working in photonics. It provides access to experts and state-of-the-art technologies from 24 of Europe’s top photonics research institutes with the aim of accelerating photonics take-up by SMEs. For more information, please see: ACTPHAST 4.0 project website


ACTPHAST 4.0, photonics, photonic integration, optical comb, laser, internet, bandwidth

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