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Boffins shatter data transmission speed record

One laser + one optical chip = more than the traffic of the entire internet

European scientists claim to have achieved a data transmission speed of 1.8 petabits per second, all with a single laser and an optical chip. 

For those unsure, 1.8Pbit/s is a lot. As in, more than the total volume of global internet traffic sent every second, the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) said in a statement.

The team credits the characteristics of the frequency comb generated on its chip for the breakthrough, even though it wasn't designed for the purpose. 

This is not the first time a frequency comb has been used to help improve the transmission of optical information across a fiber. A group of researchers from the University of California, San Diego, set an especially lengthy record for data transmission in 2015, using the technique to avoid distortion.

Combing the internet

The comb's "teeth" are all mounted at fixed frequency distances from their neighbors, and when struck with infrared laser light create a rainbow of colors, DTU said. Each color corresponds to a different frequency, each of which can be isolated, used to imprint data, reassembled and transmitted via an optical fiber. 

Victor Torres-Company, professor at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden and research lead for the project, said the characteristics of the frequency comb generated in a silicon nitride chip it developed made it coincidentally suited to use in fiber-optic communications, but that "some of the characteristic parameters were achieved by coincidence and not by design." 

Torres-Company said his team has since reverse-engineered the process to optimize the fiber-optical applications "with high reproducibility." No mention was made of what the chip was originally for, but the paper's disclosures mention Torres-Company and another researcher as being co-founders of a startup offering silicon nitride prototyping services, so it may have come from any number of other projects.

In this case, the transmission managed to hit 1.84Pbps over 7.9km (4.9 miles) of fiber line, the team claims. A previous internet speed record set in Japan last year reached a measly 319Tbps – less than a third the speed of the DTU experiment.

In the case of the Japanese project, the group used existing infrastructure and a process called wavelength-division multiplexing to get multiple wavelengths of data transmitted over a single piece of fiber.

The European team also can't touch the transmission distance of the Japanese experiment, which sent its 319Tbps datastream over 3,001km (1,864 miles), though with amplification stations every 70km to boost the signal. 

DTU Professor Leif Katsuo Oxenløwe, who worked on the experiment, said the comb method still has a few things going for it, though, like the fact that 1.8Pbps is just a fraction of the system's potential according to their modeling simulations. 

"Our calculations show that – with the single chip made by Chalmers University of Technology, and a single laser – we will be able to transmit up to 100Pbps," Oxenløwe said. The DTU solution is easily scaled, said Oxenløwe, both by creating additional frequencies and by adding additional copies of the comb to be used as parallel data sources. 

In addition to having enormous scalability, Oxenløwe said the system could also greatly reduce the energy footprint of the internet since just a single laser would be needed in place of "hundreds of thousands of the lasers located at internet hubs and datacenters, all of which guzzle power and generate heat." 

"We have an opportunity to contribute to achieving an internet that leaves a smaller climate footprint," Oxenløwe said, but also admitted there's work ahead of the team before a similar system could be used in the real world.

The team is working to integrate components with the optical chip in order to make the whole system more efficient, but didn't specify anything beyond that. We've reached out to the team to learn a bit more, and will update this story if we hear back. ®

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