Twisting Light

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A faster way forward for fiber optics

By Liz Sheeley

Fiber optics technology has revolutionized data communications, including the internet and telephone systems, by allowing information to be transmitted via light through flexible cables, which is faster and more efficient than an electrical wire.

Now, Professor Siddharth Ramachandran (ECE, MSE, PHY) and his team have discovered a new method, and along with it, a new fiber, that can transmit 24 times the amount of data of any previous single optical fiber. Their work has been published in Nature Communications.

“Although we demonstrated that this fiber could transmit 24 times the amount of data supported by a single strand of fiber, theoretically, subject to material limitations, this design can scale much further,” says Ramachandran.

This work builds on a 2013 paper he published in Science that demonstrated that if light could be twisted, instead of sent in a straight line, the transferrable amount of data would significantly increase. Even so, these twisted beams had an inherent fundamental limitation on how much data could be packed in them.

The breakthrough that pushed this discovery was when Ramachandran and his team realized that an optical fiber could transmit beam shapes that are dramatically distinct from those in a free-space medium like air. And, these new beam shapes, which can never propagate outside a fiber, but which share similarities with how electrons transmit in atoms and molecules, offer limitless combinations, leading to much higher data-capacity scaling than was previously thought possible in optical fibers.

The amount of data being sent around the world increases every day, and new ways to send that data more efficiently and faster than before are needed to meet the growing demands of networks. This first step represents just the beginning of how researchers can scale these new light modes to satisfy the exponentially growing demands of high-performance data centers, supercomputers and telecommunications networks.