High-speed optical fibres could enable faster communication

Faster telecommunications could be on the way thanks to UK scientists who have created optical fibres with the high speeds of microchips.

The researchers from Southampton University claim to be the first to have embedded the high level of performance normally associated with chip-based semiconductors into an optical fibre, which could lead to faster, cheaper and more efficient telecommunications technology.

The Southampton team — working with colleagues at Penn State University in the US — used high-pressure chemistry to deposit semiconducting materials layer by layer into tiny holes in optical fibres, rather than integrating fibre optics onto a chip.

Dr Pier Sazio, senior research fellow at Southampton University’s Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC), said: ‘The big breakthrough here is that we don’t need the whole chip as part of the finished product.

‘We have managed to build the junction — the active boundary where all the electronic action takes place — right into the fibre.

‘Moreover, while conventional chip fabrication requires multimillion-dollar cleanroom facilities, our process can be performed with simple equipment that costs much less.’

John Badding, professor of chemistry at Penn State University, said: ‘The integration of optical fibres and chips is difficult for many reasons. First, fibres are round and cylindrical, while chips are flat, so simply shaping the connection between the two is a challenge.

‘Another challenge is the alignment of pieces that are so small. An optical fibre is 10 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

‘On top of that, there are light-guiding pathways that are built onto chips that are even smaller than the fibres by as much as 100 times, so imagine just trying to line those two devices up. That feat is a big challenge for today’s technology.’

The research also has potential non-telecommunications applications as it represents a new approach to fabricating semiconductor junctions.

ORC post-doctoral researcher Dr Noel Healy said: ‘This demonstration of complex in-fibre optoelectronic engineering is exciting, as it has the potential to be a key enabling technology in the drive for faster, lower-cost and more energy-efficient communication networks.’

The researchers team will publish their findings in the journal Nature Photonics this month.