Laser telecommunications developers receive ERC grant

Researchers are investigating the use of long-distance lasers with potential applications for secure telecommunications and sensing faults in oil and gas pipes.

A team headed by Prof Sergei Turitsyn at Aston University has just been awarded a €1.7m (£1.4m) grant to develop the technology.

‘The project is focused on a completely different approach to laser science. Our lasers can be considered not as a source of radiation but rather as a very special type of transmission medium,’ Turitsyn told The Engineer.

With the huge growth of internet traffic, demands on communication systems are increasing significantly.

The proposed technology offers a new platform for improving the speed, reliability, security and capacity of future optical communication systems.

In 2009 Turitsyn’s team created the world’s longest laser at 270km with no loss of amplification, thereby providing a proof of concept for laser telecommunications.

With the funding in place, the team is now looking at ways of using existing telecommunication components for a new class of ultra-long lasers.

This will hinge on developing what are known as random lasers, which use a highly disordered gain media rather than the conventional setup of two mirrors with a gain medium in between.

‘This randomness introduces some interesting properties into the laser – in a standard cavity, for instance, operational laser wavelength is often fixed. In our laser it is basically dependent only on the wavelength of the pumping source, so in practical terms this means huge tunability across a larger spectral interval.’

Crucially, existing telecommunications can accommodate random lasers due to defects in their micro structure that occur during the fabrication process.

Another potential application of long-distance lasers is in fault detection. 

‘Lasers are very sensitive to the environment – if you have a very long laser cavity of about 100km, you can see how this could be used for sensing. You might be able to detect at which point along a system you have external perturbation, as basically any spatial perturbation can be mapped in some manner through the properties of the laser operation.’

Turitsyn speculated that such a sensing system could also be used for detecting faults in oil and gas pipelines.

The European Research Council (ERC) Advance Grant supports pioneering frontier research projects. Applicants are expected to have a track record of significant research achievements over the last 10 years and a desire to pursue ground-breaking, high-risk research that opens new directions in their respective research fields or other domains.