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Making the internet faster

Research that connects the planet

Published: 3 September 2018

Most of us now depend on the internet for communication, work and leisure. However, with its continued growth and the increasing use of bandwidth-hungry applications such as on-demand video, the threat of network gridlock is becoming a major concern.

Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the University is leading the £6.1m Airguide Photonics programme, which aims to reinvent fibre optics technology and transform future fibre network performance.

Known as Hollow Core Fibre (HCF), this new technology also has the potential to revolutionise space exploration, laser-based manufacturing and bioengineering.

Professor David Richardson, Deputy Director of the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) explains: “Our new Airguide Photonics programme will continue to push the boundaries of what can be achieved with optical fibres and develop a disruptive technology that puts the UK at the forefront of optics and its diverse fields of application.”

Solid foundations

The ORC was established in 1989, but it was in the 1960s when Southampton’s laser research began. In 1964, Professor Alec Gambling, one of the University’s pioneers, presented a paper to the British Association for the Advancement of Science suggesting optical fibres could be used for high-speed communications. Just two years later, the group was focusing on trying to make long-distance light communication a practical reality.

The development of low-loss optical fibres, which now form the basis of the global internet, is arguably the most important ORC breakthrough, according to Professor Sir David Payne, Director of the Centre. “The whole super-fast global internet relies on our invention of erbium-doped fibre amplifiers that periodically amplify optical signals, to allow huge global spans. Whenever you use a mobile phone you are probably using our amplifiers,” he says.

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.

Professor Sir David Payne - Director of the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC)

Making the impossible possible

Today, there is enough optical fibre to circle the world over 30,000 times, but Sir David admits that the thought of using optical fibres to carry a global internet never occurred to him when he started his PhD. “We thought at the time that it would be good to get from Southampton to London and even that seemed impossible,” he said.

The ORC now has 64 laboratories and the best-equipped university fibre manufacturing cleanrooms in Europe. The Centre is also responsible for developing the most ‘special’ optical fibres in the world today, Sir David says, for use in a variety of applications including high-powered lasers, medical devices and space exploration.

Looking to the future

Research at the ORC has changed substantially since the 1960s, but the ethos of pushing boundaries is still part of the culture. Professor Anna Peacock is one of the researchers aiming to further revolutionise optical communications with her studies into combining semiconductor-based data processing chips and low-loss optical fibres to transform the way information is distributed. Anna hopes to develop fibres that will increase the speed and capacity of telecommunication systems, while at the same time offering reduced energy consumption.

This passion for innovation and solving real-world problems helps secure Southampton’s position as a global research leader, Sir David explains. “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.”

Professor David Richardson

View Professor Richardson's profile.

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