Transmitting Data At The Speed Of Light (VIDEO)

Associate Professor Dawn Tan is harnessing light’s unique properties to bring data transmission up to ultra-fast speeds.

AsianScientist (Jun. 11, 2020) – In the vast worlds of Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, spaceships whizz from one part of the universe to another in the blink of an eye. Their ultra-fast travel is powered by a science fiction staple known as “warp speed,” which is said to be faster than the speed of light. With light reaching speeds of nearly 300,000 km/s in a vacuum, it’s no wonder these fictitious spaceships can achieve interstellar travel with relative ease.

Though warp speeds still remain firmly in the domain of science fiction, there’s another significantly more down-to-earth application that stands to benefit from exploiting the speed of light: data transmission.

“There’s nothing else that you can use as a medium for data transmission that’s faster than light,” said Associate Professor Dawn Tan from the Singapore University of Technology and Design, where she runs the Photonics Devices and Systems Group.

Studying and harnessing the properties of light and its particles—called photons—falls under a branch of physics known as photonics. Pioneered in the 1960s, innovations in photonics have given rise to now-ubiquitous technologies such as lasers and fiber optics. The latter, in particular, has revolutionized data transmission by enabling the high-speed, high-bandwidth transfer of data in popular activities like video streaming and online gaming.

But Tan has set her sights on pushing the limits of data transfer even further. Her specialization lies in silicon photonics, an emerging field at the intersection of photonics and electronics. Simply put, silicon photonics utilizes light to transmit data in computer chips.

“Silicon photonics lets you transmit data at high speeds with less heat than electronics, which means lower power consumption,” she explained. “It’s also cheaper to manufacture because [silicon] photonics can use the same infrastructure as electronics but achieve a similar or even better performance.”

One problem that her research seeks to address is optical dispersion, which dampens data transmission in fiber optic communications.

“As light propagates, it disperses and becomes weaker,” said Tan.

Left unaccounted for, optical dispersion causes light to spread out and the information it carries to degrade over long distances.

As a result, part of Tan’s silicon photonics research aims to build better optical amplifiers. Similar to how audio systems have amplifiers that increase a sound’s volume, optical amplifiers make light brighter—boosting its ability to propagate.

“Without periodic amplifcation, there won’t be enough light for the receiver to receive and read the data,” she added.

Ultimately, Tan and her research group seek to shine a light on the many real-life applications of photonics.

“We hope to harness the invisible wavelengths of light in practical ways to benefit mankind,” she concluded.


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