fiber optic cables

Thanks to the magic of broadband, it no longer takes 45 seconds to load a single webpage. But a new optics breakthrough from researchers from RMIT University has the potential to make queuing up videos on wifi feel like you’re watching paint dry. Even more important, the inventors say this improvement can be easily implemented on top of the existing internet infrastructure.

In the new paper published Tuesday in Nature Communications, researchers revealed the world’s first nanophotonic device for encoding and processing data. The device builds on previous work done by the research group involving “twisted light” to expand the data capacity of the fiber-optic cables that are now industry standard. Their most recent invention takes us one step closer to creating an ultra-fast internet that wouldn’t require completely upheaving the fiber optic infrastructure buried in the ocean floor.

How Twisted Light Is a Game Changer

Where RMIT’s Laboratory of Artificial Intelligence Nanophotonics’ (LAIN) research changes the game of internet speed is by increasing the available bandwidth for sending information. While broadband uses the visible color spectrum, a 2016 paper shows how the group took advantage of light we cannot see by changing its rotation, or orbital angular momentum (OAM), to create what they call “twisted light.”

“What we’ve managed to do is accurately transmit data via light at its highest capacity in a way that will allow us to massively increase our bandwidth,” co-author Dr. Haoran Ren says in a statement.

OAM detector
The miniature OAM nano-electronic detector decodes twisted light.

But what goes up must also come down. So when the team translated information into twisted light, they also needed to decode it, which is where their newest invention fits in.

“To do this previously would require a machine the size of a table, which is completely impractical for telecommunications,” Ren says. “By using ultrathin topological nanosheets measuring a fraction of a millimeter, our invention does this job better and fits on the end of an optical fiber.”

The Current State of the Internet

This comes at a crucial moment. Over 99 percent of all data goes through the over 700,000 miles (1.1 million km) of cables buried underwater. At this point, the fiber optic cables less than a tenth the thickness of a human hair carry data through pulses of light that bounce around in plastic-coated strands of glass. This method has served us pretty well, but our insatiable appetite for computing power is a reminder that the tech must keep up too.

“Present-day optical communications are heading towards a ‘capacity crunch’ as they fail to keep up with the ever-increasing demands of Big Data,” Ren says.

The race to prevent Ren’s capacity crunch is heating up. Per capita use per month of internet traffic has multiplied from 19 GB in 2009 to 109 in 2016. By 2021, US Telecom predicts usage for US users will at least double to 264 GB. A lot of that is thanks to the rise of video streaming like Netflix uses about 1GB per hour on standard video — but more widespread adoption of VR, AR, immersive gaming, or technologies that haven’t even been invented yet could ramp up the capacity crunch even more.

In short, the team’s research invented not only the technology for super-speedy internet, but also the device needed to actually implement even more demanding emerging technologies and deliver them to the masses.

“It fits the scale of existing fiber technology and could be applied to increase the bandwidth, or potentially the processing speed, of that fiber by over 100 times within the next couple of years,” says Professor Min Gu, the LAIN Director and Associate Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research Innovation and Entrepreneurship at RMIT. “This easy scalability and the massive impact it will have on telecommunications is what’s so exciting.”