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Can you imagine data transfer speeds as fast as the speed of light? British researchers can. In fact, they’re almost there. Researcher Francesco Poletti and his team at the University of Southampton in England have created optical fibers that can transfer data at a jaw-dropping speed of 73.7 terabits per second (or nearly 10 terabytes per second), hitting 99.7 percent of the speed of light. Consider this: Today’s bleeding-edge fiber optic links are considered blazing fast, but they only run at 40 GB, and with higher latency.

The basic principle of this research is that the speed of light is faster, much faster, shooting through air than through silica glass. (In a vacuum, the speed of light is up to 31 percent faster.) This gave the team an idea — why not make the fibers hollow? Sure, others have attempted that in the past, but the materials used had issues with light refraction and interference, particularly when the fibers bend. This time around, the researchers solved those problems by revamping the hollow-core design and using something called an “ultra-thin photonic-bandgap rim.” In essence, the scientists made a new type of hollow cables with special walls that prevent light refraction.

Brilliant. And, it seems, it works well with lower latency. Data loss for Southampton’s new optical fibers runs at about 3.5 dB/km. That’s pretty low, though not quite low enough for long network connections. As a result, we won’t be seeing this breakthrough anytime soon at the consumer level. But take heart — the researchers are trying to solve the dilemma and make it feasible for longer stretches. In the mean time, the short-hop uses for such vast amounts of data would be suitable for government supercomputers or corporate data centers.

For more information, including the nitty gritty scientific details on this research project, be sure to check out the source links.

Seems like University of Southampton is killing it on the scientific frontier. First they set out to cure blindness, and now they’re achieving the fastest data transfers the world has ever seen. If you’re into innovations that push the boundaries, this might be the institution to watch.