October 1, 2004 Just as the transistor and microelectronics transformed communications and human society in the 20th century, "light" transistors and microphotonics are about to revolutionise the way we communicate in the 21st century. We are on the verge of a new revolution in computing and communications thanks to the breakthrough advances by a Sydney based research team led by Professor Benjamin Eggleton.
A Federation Fellow and Research Director of the CUDOS Centre for Ultra-high bandwidth Devices for Optical Systems, Professor Eggleton recently received the prestigious 2004 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year for his pioneering work in the field of optical physics and photonics.
Optical fibres carry gigabytes of data across oceans and to our streets, hospitals, schools and businesses.
Professor Eggleton believes that optical devices are going to do much more in the future. The challenge, he says, is to clear the bottlenecks caused by slower electronic circuits, which is where his latest invention - 'photonic wire' - comes in.
Photonic wire guides lightbeams in the same way that copper wires guide electrical signals.
The advance paves the way for a wholesale revolution in computing, dramatically boosting the speed and efficiency of communications networks and the internal circuitry of future microchips.
Massive amounts of information will be able to be delivered instantaneously whilst reducing both power consumption and heat generation. Real time 3D telesurgery in hospitals, high definition cinema on demand via cable, virtual telepresencing for personal and business use, and even cheap but superfast disposable computers could be just around the corner thanks to photonic wire.
"This is the Holy Grail of communications," says Professor Eggleton. "We're constructing the building blocks. It's ultimately about a realisation of an all-optical world - replacing racks of machines with optical chips... (and) if you get rid of all the electronics between chips, you've got no heat, very little power consumption and you've got no need for banks of air conditioners [to keep computers from overheating].
Eventually you can use photonic wires between the processors themselves, allowing massive amounts of data to be sent and processed."
The new photonic wire is 100 times smaller than existing optical fibre, which is itself the width of a strand of human hair. It is also invisible to the naked eye and roughly the size of the wavelength of visible light.
The wire was made by tapering down optical fibre by over a factor of 100 using a novel flame brushing technique. Microstructured optical fibres contain air holes to isolate photons, creating an internal 'jacket' that provides robustness and isolation from dust.
Professor Eggleton's passion for photonics started at 19, during his physics degree at the University of Sydney. An interest in astronomy gave him the chance to work on the optical systems on the Sydney University Stellar Interferometer telescope at Narrabri.
The next step was a PhD and internship at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey - home to several Nobel Laureates and many of the major communications inventions of the 20th century. His PhD complete, he was invited back to Bell Laboratories by Lucent.
Soon he was leading a team of 25 researchers in developing a host of optical devices that were being developed for the communications industry. Just one of his inventions - a "tuneable dispersion compensator" dramatically improved the carrying capacity of long range optical cables - and eliminated a $100 million bottleneck for Lucent.
He was then brought back to Australia by the lure of a Federation Fellowship and the Australian research Council funded CUDOS to work on photonic technology problems.
"Ultimately, if we can solve these issues - and we believe optics will - we can transform society," said Eggleton. "It's a major worldwide effort, and Australia's leading in this area. It's not something that's going to happen tomorrow, it's going to take five to ten years.
But we're taking the first steps." The result will be as hard to imagine now as today's globally networked communications system would have been at the birth of computers in the 1940s. But thanks to photonics, the future of computing is again looking bright. Further information regarding the work of CUDOS can be found online at: http://www.physics.usyd.edu.au/cudos/
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