Making the internet faster
Our research connects the planet; the whole global internet relies on our invention of erbium-doped fibre amplifiers that boost optical signals to allow fast telecommunications.
These days most of us depend on the internet for communication, work and leisure. However, with the internet continuing to grow at a rapid rate and the increasing use of bandwidth-hungry applications such as on-demand video, streaming TV players and online gaming, the threat of network gridlock is becoming a major concern.
The University is leading a £7.2m project to pioneer new technologies for a ‘photonics hyperhighway’. Professor David Richardson, Deputy Director of the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) explains: “We are starting with a critical re-examination of some of the technologies that are the building blocks of the current system. The project hopes to radically transform the physical infrastructure underpinning today’s networks by developing devices capable of 1,000-fold improvements in performance.”
Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, this major project combines the world-leading expertise of Southampton’s ORC and the High Performance Network Group of the University of Bristol along with industry project partners.
The results of research at the ORC have touched everyone’s lives one way or another, according to Professor David Payne, Director of the ORC. Arguably the most important break-through here is the development of low-loss optical fibres which now form the basis of the global internet, he explains.
“The whole global internet relies on our invention of erbium-doped fibre amplifiers that amplify optical signals, which allow fast telecommunications. Whenever you use a mobile phone you are probably using our amplifiers, because the phone signal goes to a mast that is then optically connected through fibres to other masts,” he says.
The ORC was established in 1989, but the research that forms its foundations at Southampton began in the 1960s when researchers started work on lasers. In Autumn 1964, Professor Alec Gambling from the University, presented a paper to the Southampton meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in which he suggested that optical fibres – flexible, transparent fibres that transmit light between the two ends – could be used for high-speed communications.
The team started collaborating with a defence establishment in Christchurch, in the New Forest, as the development had great potential for secure, high-speed communications. By 1966 the group was focusing on trying to make long-distance light communication a practical reality.
The work that we do here at Southampton, not just in the ORC, but in the whole University, is very focused on creating wealth for the nation. We are an entrepreneurial and agile university that loves to work with industry and take real tangible things forward for the benefit of the economy and mankind. And long may it continue.
Making the impossible possible
“There is enough optical fibre installed globally today to circle the world over 30,000 times,” says David. At the time of starting his PhD at Southampton the thought of covering the world with optical fibres that carry a global internet never occurred to him. “We thought at the time that it would be good to get from Southampton to London and even that seemed impossible,” he adds.
David explains that when he was an undergraduate and postgraduate student at Southampton, it was a very young university and the environment was that the impossible could be possible. “We were in the interesting situation of being the only low-loss fibre developers outside of big, heavily protected corporate research labs and as a result the world literally beat a path to our door,” he says. By 1969 the first optical fibres were being drawn using the unique fibre drawing tower at the University. “They just couldn’t believe that they could come to our labs and see kilometres of low-loss optical fibres being made.”
Today, the impact of the ORC spreads way beyond global telecommunications with the research penetrating many industries, especially manufacturing. David explains that most ‘special’ optical fibres in the world today sprung from the ORC. These optical fibres are used in a variety of applications, such as high-powered lasers for machining, cutting or welding and medical devices. “They are also found in the Moon Rover and Mars Explorer among other things,” he says.
The ORC has 64 laboratories and the leading university fibre manufacturing clean rooms in Europe. As well as fibre, it carries out research on new concepts relating to silicon interconnects on microchips led by Professor Graham Reed, light-emitting devices, next-generation nanotechnology and investigating new metamaterials that can be manipulated to behave in ways that nature had not intended, led by Professor Nikolay Zheludev. “We cover an extremely wide range of research. The reason for this is photonics is pretty much anything to do with light,” says David. “The last century was one of electronics and it has been said that this is the century of light.”
Looking to the future
Research at the ORC has changed substantially since the 1960s, but the ethos of blue sky thinking and pushing the boundaries of the field is still very much a part of the culture. For example, Professor Anna Peacock is aiming to revolutionise optical communications still further with her research. The age of optical communications has been enabled by semiconductor-based chips used to process optical data and the low-loss optical fibres used to transport the data, she explains.
“The aim of my research is to combine these two technologies by incorporating semiconductor materials inside the fibres. This will enable the fibres to act as processors as well as transmitters of light, transforming the way information is distributed,” she says. Anna hopes to develop fibres that will increase the speed and capacity of telecommunication systems, while at the same time offering reduced energy consumption. “The broad wavelength range over which these fibres can transmit light means that their applications also extend beyond communications and into areas such as medicine, sensing, imaging and security monitoring. For example, compact mid-infrared laser sources could be used in tissue imaging and drug analysis.”
As well as developing cutting-edge technology the ORC has been instrumental in commercialising products and supporting local business. “There are at least 10 companies in the local area that owe their existence to the ORC and they are selling globally and employ large numbers of people,” says David. “For example, the world’s leading special fibre supplier, Fibercore, trades on the University of Southampton Science Park,” he adds.
“The work that we do here at Southampton, not just in the ORC, but in the whole University, is very focused on creating wealth for the nation,” says David. “We are an entrepreneurial and agile university that loves to work with industry and take real tangible things forward for the benefit of the economy and mankind. And long may it continue,” he adds.