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Q&A: Electro-optic polymers herald a new age of ultra-fast communication

Imagine if the speed of data passing through the Internet doubled. What would it do for your bandwidth availability at home if it tripled?

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© Jonathan Nackstrand, AFP
© Jonathan Nackstrand, AFP

To foster in a new generation of high-speed communication, the main challenge is with the steps to transform electronic signals into optical signals rapidly. One company has recently made significant progress in this field.

The company is Lightwave Logic and it develops electro-optic polymers allowing more data to be transmitted at significantly higher speeds and with less power than existing solutions. Such technology is key to future developments within the digital data arena.

Digital Journal caught up with Dr. Michael Lebby, CEO of Lightwave Logic.

Digital Journal: Can you provide a brief background on Lightwave Logic?

Michael Lebby: Lightwave Logic, Inc. (NASDAQ: LWLG) is developing a platform leveraging its proprietary engineered electro-optic (EO) polymers to transmit data at higher speeds with less power. The Company’s high-activity and high-stability organic polymers allow Lightwave Logic to create next-generation photonic EO devices, which convert data from electrical signals into optical signals, for applications in data communications and telecommunications markets.

Lightwave Logic is a public company with unique specialty in organic materials, and especially those that have electro-optical properties. Over the past decade, we have matured our proprietary chromophores and organic polymers for applications in fiber optic communications, and now we are looking at using our polymers in Automotive LIDAR, sensing, medical, display and other consumer based products.

DJ: Why is the need for your proprietary electro-optic polymers more important now than ever?

Lebby: In today’s Internet, the issue of reducing power consumption in data centers, and optical networks has become a huge topic of discussion in the industry as well as at major technical optical communication conferences. High speed, low power optical switches called modulators are seen to be an enabling technology that can help mitigate power consumption in across the equipment that is used in the Internet or optical network.

Imagine if the speed of data passing through the Internet doubled. What would it do for your bandwidth availability at home if it tripled? These are the basic tenants of providing more data through the Internet. It would allow faster downloads, faster uploads, and you’ll be able to run many video windows throughout your home – and not worry about turning the camera off as bandwidth is limited. Wouldn’t that be great?

So what is the Internet? The best way to visualize the Internet is to think of it as a network of fiber optic cables that have architectures all over the country, and under the oceans for international communication, too. These cables carry digital signals that contain the information when we as users want to access websites or want to email or video call our families. The digital signals are simply 1’s and 0’s that are encoded to carry our information as we access websites and communicate with our loved ones.

So why Lightwave Logic, and what do we have to offer with respect to the Internet? We have technology that increases the data flow 2 or 3 times the rate today and at significantly lower power consumption. This simply means that everyone can access higher bandwidths and be able to keep our cameras on when we are not only one video call, but many throughout our home. It also means that the big switching centers for our data – buildings that are called data centers – consume less power. For industry, corporations, and manufacturing, higher data rates allow easier access to higher quality data flow, which in turn permits a higher quality of information – and more efficient product development. For those corporations with data centers – lowering power consumption has been a key mantra for their designs over the past decade, and for the next decade.

Lightwave Logic makes optical switching devices that permit the Internet to run faster. A simple way to see the impact is to imagine that the Internet is similar to the vehicle road system – the freeways, the toll roads, the motorways, the autobahns. If we use this analogy, then we can easily see speed limits perhaps in the 50-75MPH range depending on country and local laws. How much has the speed of these roads changed in the last 20-30years? Not much. It would seem that we have reached a saturation point even though cars have improved in design and performance.

So what have we done to the road system to carry more traffic? We clearly can’t go faster, presumably due to safety issues, so we have added more traffic lanes. In major cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, freeways and toll roads with 4 or 5 lanes in each direction are not uncommon. Unfortunately, we still have traffic jams, and the road system clogs. If we now consider the Internet, we have emulated the freeway system, and have sort of done the same thing – we’ve added optical channels to increase data flow – a bit like adding traffic lanes. In fact, in optical network architectures, we’ve done more – we’ve increased the symbol rate of each digital signal so that more information can be carried in a digital data cycle.

Instead of a simple castellated square wave of 1’s and 0’s (think of a castle wall profile), we now have complex staircases that indeed allow more data per digital data cycle. So, what does this look like from a freeway/toll road perspective? Funny enough, it’s like stacking cars on top of each other, moving down the freeway at say 60MPH. It’s called more information per bit – more information per optical digital bit or digital data cycle. Can you imagine 4 or 5 cars stacked on top of each other going down the freeway? It’s absurd, however, this is effectively what our optical network and Internet industry have implemented. The question is, why did they do that? It’s because the optical devices in the Internet are limited in speed. They can’t go faster in freeway terms than say 75MPH – a bit like cars not being allowed to speed. The industry is acutely aware of this issue and decided not to design faster optical switching devices, but focused on how to increase the techniques in encoded data as it passes through the fiber optics – more information per bit.

While this innovation has worked for the past decade, it is quickly running out of steam. Today, the demands for higher data rates and bandwidth for the Internet are forcing the architects and optical network planners to re-think their strategy. They are being pushed into figuring out how to increase the optical device speed as opposed to encoding more complicated schemes to increase the information per bit (because the more complex the encoding, the more electronics is needed, and the higher the power consumption. Something that they desperately want to avoid. This is where Lightwave Logic has the impact – we have optical modulator devices that switch light 2-3X faster than existing optical devices, and what’s more, at significantly lower power consumption to relieve the network architects of expensive and power hungry electronic integrated circuits.

DJ: You recently announced breakthrough photostability results for use in ultra-high-speed electro-optic polymers. Can you expand on the significance of this announcement?

Lebby: In order to have polymer modulators ubiquitous across the industry, we need to be able to not only scale our polymers in volume, but show stability and reliability in the polymer materials. It’s rather like the Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) industry, and how this industry matured over the past decade. We use OLEDs for mobile phone displays, TVs, computer monitors and more today. OLEDs are polymer-based LEDs, and they have replaced Liquid Crystal Displays (LCDs) for TVs and other consumer products significantly recently. Our Lightwave polymers are different, but they are still polymers. Do we question the reliability and stability of OLEDs today? We don’t, however when they were being developed in the 1990s, many folks did. If OLEDs can be ubiquitous and everywhere in consumer products, then our electro-optic polymers can also. This is why we put our recent press releases on the stability of our polymer material. It is an important step towards large volume scalable manufacturing that will enable electro-optical polymers to be used everywhere in the Internet as well as other market applications.

The good news is that like OLED polymers which are chemically different (they send out light in red, green, and blue while our electro-optic polymers switch light very very quickly), means that Lightwave Logics’ polymer technology is ready to enable lower power consumption significantly for the operators of the Internet.

DJ: What were the main technological challenges you faced?

Lebby: The main technological challenges faced over the past few years has been the performance and acceptance of the electro-optic polymers. We have increased performance significantly over the past 3-5 years to the point now where our electro-optic polymers are not only meeting the specifications of modulator performance used on the Internet but in fact, surpassing the performance needed to both increase data speed, and lower power consumptions today. Furthermore, polymers are a new material for modulators, and as such are having to working through similar acceptance issues just like OLEDs a decade ago. The good news is that in today’s world, polymer-ased technologies are readily accepted, and demonstrated to be both reliable, stable with good lifetimes. Our electro-optic polymers are no different and we expect them to be utilized everywhere starting with the Internet.

DJ: What are some of the biggest trends you are seeing in your industry?

Lebby: The two biggest trends today are being driven by the big data center and telecommunications Internet and optical network operators. These groups are struggling with keeping their power consumption in check. In fact, many are trawling the technology conferences around the world looking for technologies that will not only allow data to be increased so that we see increased bandwidth and home and work, but ways and approaches to bring down power consumption.

Some market researchers are predicting that communications technology, and that which relates to the Internet may consume by 2030 over 20% of the Nations power electrical grid. While this is still far out, and may have a large variance, nevertheless, it is a huge number than needs to be addressed today. A second big trend that is driving the Internet to be more useful is the appetite for video streaming that has accelerated over the past 2-3 years, and especially so during the pandemic. Our appetite as consumers for video traffic is not going away, and in fact, it’s accelerating quickly! Both of these trends point towards the use of electro-optic polymers to both reduce power consumption and increase speed of data flow.

DJ: Where do you see electro-optic polymer technology evolving over the next decade?

Lebby: Over the next decade, the Internet will reduce in power consumption thanks to technologies such as electro-optic polymers, but will also be faster in that higher bandwidth will be available to consumers and users for platforms that utilize video streaming and related digital media content. While only a few of us can boast 1Gbps data rates to the home, or a few Gbps data rates to the office, in a decade we will all have access to a more efficient, higher performing Internet. This will allow us all to increase our quality of life, and make better use of a utility that will give us not only email, texts, TV, shopping, working from home, but a full collection of digital medial opportunities that we can only dream of today.

Wow – why did this not happen before? Mostly because Lightwave Logic was developing a novel innovative technology platform based on organic electro-optic polymers. We are now in the position with our technology platform in organic electro-optic polymers to change the quality of consumers lives through faster data flow in the Internet. Just imagine!

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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