Corkscrew Lasers Are About to Revolutionize Internet BandwidthS

We transmit almost a thousand petabytes of data over the ‘nets every month—an amount that’s growing exponentially, thanks to your narcissistic obsession with Snapchat. In fact, we’re quickly closing in on the limits of how much data optical fiber can transmit. Luckily, scientists at Boston University recently unveiled what could be the next generation of bandwidth tech.

The findings of their DARPA-funded study, which were published in Science today, describe a novel new way to send data down an optical fiber by using donut-shaped laser beams called optical vortices. To understand what’s really remarkable about this, it helps to know how bandwidth works right now. Currently, the 0s and 1s that make up your emails, photos, and YouTube vidoes travel down the optical fiber as specific colors, which are unpacked at the other end according to hue. Traditionally, bandwidth is increased by adding more colors to the process—but that’s a limited approach.

The scientists at BU, though, have harnessed the power of a laser that travel along spatial modes within the fibre, each “mode” carrying several different colors. The system is capable of transmitting 1.6 terabits per second, which as lead author Siddharth Ramachandran explains, is exponentially faster than our current internet connections:

A typical cable Internet connection to a home delivers 1-10 megabits per second of data, which means that the transmission capacity we demonstrated with OAM modes in our fiber represents a capacity equivalent to one million simultaneous cable-internet connections today.

According to BU, physicists and biologists have known about optical vortices for decades—in fact, they’re a central tenet of quantum computing, which imagines the application of ideas about quantum mechanics to technology. But up until now, the phenomenon was thought to be too hard to control.

So just how fast is 1.6 terabits a second? The announcement describes it as the equivalent of being able to transmit eight Blu-RayTM DVDs every second. [Science via Futurity; Erik Ludwig/Flickr]