While the term World Wide Web has come to represent having the world at our finger tips through the Internet, there is in fact a web of optical fibers that have spread world-wide. These optical cables encircle our world in its web, taking the internet to every corner of the world. Currently all internet / network traffic travels over this world wide web of optical fiber. It’s not a smooth journey for these bits of information though. During a trip around the world every bit is converted from light to electricity and back again hundreds of times.
In an effort to make life easier for the bits flying around the world scientists from the University of Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC), in collaboration with Penn State University, have developed a short cut. In an outstanding example of a thinking outside of the box scientists have manufactured electronics directly into optical fibers. Creating simple circuits initially, it is hoped that this technology will eventually be able to direct traffic without having to travel through the special hardware that is currently required.
Dr Pier Sazio, Senior Research Fellow in the University of Southampton’s OCR says: “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 clean room facilities, our process can be performed with simple equipment that costs much less.”
John Badding, Professor of Chemistry at Penn State, explains: “The integration of optical fibers and chips is difficult for many reasons. First, fibers 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 fiber 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 fibers 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 new process developed by the OCR team manufactures the electronics into tiny pits on the optic fiber. The process can be applied using existing chip manufacturing technology making it relatively cheap and very applicable. So far the OCR team have managed to build an electronic junction into the fiber, a simple circuit. More complex circuits will be required for the smart fiber to be able to help the bits make a smooth journey around the world. To replace the complex network hardware that does the job at the moment the scientists must be able to interpret and then transmit photons as they fly by. The technology will never be able to do complex calculations or break codes but hopes are that the simple jobs could be done directly in the cable. Tasks like rebroadcasting one signal across multiple fibers or filtering specific network traffic may be possible in the future.
While this is not the holy grail of optical computing it is a spectacular example of thinking differently. While other researchers have been trying to fit the round optical cable into the square world of the chip these scientists decided to try something completely different. The true holy grail of opto-electronics is of course the fully optical chip, one that uses photons instead of electrons. MIT have recently made some incredible breakthroughs in this field recently, alas it is still a far off dream.
In the long run these two different techniques will eventually become complimentary, finding their own niches This discovery is destined to be developed into smart optic fibers while optical computer chips will become the processing powerhouse of the future.
Smart fiber may sound like a new type of breakfast cereal but instead it is an example of what can happen when scientists use a little imagination, an example of thinking outside of the box. Breakthroughs such as these are essential to keep the march of technology moving forward. As the world whizzes by, electrons and photons making their way around the world feeding our insatiable thirst for information and entertainment it’s up to Smart Fiber and other future breakthroughs to keep our appetites quenched.