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MIT Team Detail Their Optics-On-A-Chip Device

By Carolyn E. Price     Feb 9, 2007 in Technology
MIT reveal how they will be able to speed up the transmission of data and video across fibre optiic network connections.
Fibre-optic networks carry huge amounts of information back and forth very quickly, but the signals tend to weaken as the light that is carrying the data travels further away from the source. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technoloby say that they have come up with a way of keeping those light waves running at full speed and power as it travels over long distances.
The further the waves travel away from the source, the more polarized they become, ie., they orient themselves horizontally and vertically in completely radom sequences. The tools that are available to fix this polarization are very expensive to install.
MIT researchers are reporting in the journal Nature Photonics that they have come up with a solution that uses the mass- production capabilities of the standard silicon chip. It's a very promising development because the popularity of videos over the internet, which eat up huge amounts of bandwidth, puts a strain on current networks. While this is happening, the consumer is demanding a totally seamless transmission.
Just like polarizing sunglasses that block out light waves, the MIT researchers have created a clever device that splits the light beams as they pass through a circuit. This device rotates one of the polarized beams, before both beams are joined back up on their way out of the circuit, thereby retaining the signals' original strength.
But it's not just that device that the researchers are hyped up about. They are also announcing the innovative method that they come up with that integrates the optical circuitry with electronic circuitry on the same silicon chip.
"It's a big step forward _ no one was able to do this before in a way that is manufacturable and takes advantage of the manufacturability of silicon technology," said Erich Ippen, an MIT electrical engineering and physics professor and one of the study's co-authors.
Scientists have been long been trying to come up with ways to tap into the enormous power of light wave use over networks while figuring out how to manufacture the circuitry cheaply, and on a large scale, using the established processes of the semiconductor industry.
They have often been hindered by issues of incompatibility between the light source and silicon. Recently, major strides have been take toward figuring out how to get the two to work together.
The MIT research team has developed a working circuit on a chip. They say it could be easily reproduced using current silicon fabrication technology. Independent technology experts are now saying that the team's invention could eventually make its way onto next-generation telecommunications chips, and devices like it could help redefine how optical networks are built.
Connie Chang-Hasnain, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, said that beating this problem requires large components that take several hours assemble.
"Here, you just print (a silicon chip) and nobody is needed to align it," she said. "Imagine the massive increase in efficiency and the reduction in the need for labor and precision instruments. That's tremendous."
The advance comes at a time when companies are looking for ways to boost the performance of their optical devices while lowering costs. Service providers are currently spending lots of money trying to upgrade their networks to handle the increase in traffic.
Video consumes a thousand times more network space than e-mail and text messages. It is now becoming the key driver behind those upgrades as Internet users demand more bandwidth to download content from sites like YouTube. Service providers are also preparing for the transition to Internet Protocol Television, or IPTV -- TV that is delivered over a broadband connection.
Alex Schoenfelder, general manager of the integrated photonics business at JDS Uniphase Corp., said the MIT research could help drive down production costs of optical devices all while moving the technology away from the network, toward the end consumer.
"It will push the boundary between optics and electronics very close to the end customer," he said. "And that will be the significance -- it will open the marketplace to significantly higher volumes than we're serving today."
I definitely don't understand all the nuts and bolts of how these things work, but this sounds like a major breakthrough toward speeding up the transmission of data and it would seem more imporatntly to some, video across current fibre optic network connections.
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