Using optical technology, Scandinavian researchers have completely shattered the record for the fastest data transmission in the world, achieving a dizzying 1.8 petabits per second (Pbit/s), or a million gigabits per second. For comparison, the average American had an average broadband connection of 120 Mbit/s. The total global internet traffic is around one Pbit/sec, so this system can theoretically download nearly twice as much data in a second as all the people using the internet at a given moment combined.
The optical data transfer of the future
The researchers at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) and the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden achieved this breakthrough using a single optical chip and one laser. The infrared laser fires a beam of light into the custom-made optical chip, which splits the light into a rainbow of many different colors or frequencies. Each of these frequencies can be isolated and used to imprint data sent over an optical fiber, resulting in a huge data transfer.
The real innovation lies in the chip, which can multiply a single frequency into hundreds of different colors, achieving the same data transfer otherwise possible using more than 1,000 lasers rather than only one. Data is transferred through light by modulating its properties, such as amplitude, phase, and polarization, thereby creating distinct signals that can be converted into either 1s or 0s.
“What is special about this chip is that it produces a frequency comb with ideal characteristics for fiber-optical communications – it has high optical power and covers a broad bandwidth within the spectral region that is interesting for advanced optical communications,” Victor Torres Company, professor at Chalmers University of Technology, said in a statement.
What's particularly remarkable is that some of the parameters that enable such a phenomenally high data transfer speed were achieved completely by accident while the researchers were working on something else entirely. “However, with efforts in my team, we are now capable to reverse engineer the process and achieve with high reproducibility microcombs for target applications in telecommunications,” Victor Torres said.
Although 1.8 Pbit/s is completely ludicrous, this may only be the beginning. According to a computational model made by the researchers, with some tweaking, a single optical chip could transmit up to 100 Pbit/s.
"The reason for this is that our solution is scalable—both in terms of creating many frequencies and in terms of splitting the frequency comb into many spatial copies and then optically amplifying them, and using them as parallel sources with which we can transmit data. Although the comb copies must be amplified, we do not lose the qualities of the comb, which we utilize for spectrally efficient data transmission,” Professor Leif Katsuo Oxenløwe, Head of the Centre of Excellence for Silicon Photonics for Optical Communications (SPOC) at DTU.
Not only is this type of optical data transfer lightning fast, but it may also be more a sustainable solution to powering the internet. By replacing thousands of lasers found in data hubs across the world with a single optical chip a great deal of power saving can be achieved. As a result, the internet's carbon footprint could be significantly reduced. Currently, the internet is responsible for 3.7% of global emissions.
All of this gets us excited about the future, however, the researchers note that it will take a lot of time before their innovative optical chip technology can be adopted and scaled by the industry.
“All over the world, work is being done to integrate the laser source in the optical chip, and we’re working on that as well. The more components we can integrate in the chip, the more efficient the whole transmitter will be. I.e. laser, comb-creating chip, data modulators, and any amplifier elements. It will be an extremely efficient optical transmitter of data signals,” says Leif Katsuo Oxenløwe.
The findings were reported in the journal Nature Photonics.