Prestigious EU Prize for the World’s Fastest Data Signal

DTU researchers have been awarded the prestigious Horizon prize of EUR 500,000 for a technology that allows optical data transmission with ultra-high capacity and presents huge energy- and cost-saving potential.

optical data transmission

The biggest challenges facing the Internet today are the increasing demands for capacity and the associated energy consumption. At present, more than two per cent of total global carbon emissions stem from the Internet, and the Horizon prize—which has recently been awarded to researchers from DTU and others—addresses precisely this issue.

Presented as part of Horizon 2020—the EU framework programme for research and innovation—this is an innovation prize awarded to researchers working to make a breakthrough in a specific area of societal interest to Europe.

In this case, the prize has been presented under the banner of ‘Breaking the optical transmission barriers’ and has been awarded on the basis of a challenge laid out in the Horizon 2020 programme. More specifically, it has been presented to a solution that “maximizes fibre capacity per channel/spectrum range and/or the efficiency and range of the spectrum.” As stated in the programme aims, the solution in question must also be energy-efficient, financially viable and practical to install and implement.

“It is truly extraordinary to receive this prize. To start with, there is the sheer size of the sum of money involved, which matches the biggest scientific prizes of all. And then there is the fact that it comes from a competition targeted at what can be done in the future; i.e. it’s not a prize given for something we’ve already done. So I see this as a clear signal that there are others who can see the big picture regarding what we’ve achieved, and who are keen to see where we take it from here,” says Professor Leif Katsuo Oxenløwe from DTU Fotonik, one of the recipients of the prize along with Hao Hu, Senior Researcher, and colleagues from Japan and the UK.

World record in Data transmission

Optical networks form the backbone of the Internet, and thus the information society as well. Every single day in 2016, we transfer more data than were generated since records began up to the year 2000—a level of traffic that just keeps on growing.

The researchers have developed new types of optical transmitters, new types of transmission fibres and new types of fibre amplifiers, which, together, have the capacity to deliver ultra-high capacity transmission over thousands of kilometres. With significant savings on energy and costs.

The optical fibres that form the backbone of the Internet have enabled more than 3.5 billion people to access the Internet, and hundreds of millions of users actually have fibre-optic broadband connections running all the way to their homes. In addition, optical fibres are used to link most wireless cell towers, where data signals from billions of mobile phones are converted directly into infrared photons that then travel along a giant network of optical fibres linking cities, countries and continents. Today, around 300,000 billion optical bits are transmitted every second (300 terabits/sec) of every day.

With existing technologies it is, for example, possible to increase capacity 1,000 times by installing 1,000 parallel systems, although this approach will inevitably increase costs, energy consumption and space requirements by the same factor. In summer 2016, using the new technology, the researchers became the first in the world to send 661 terabits per second through a fibre cable with just a single light source—in contrast to the existing situation, where traffic is powered by multiple lasers operating at different wavelengths, and all requiring cooling. The volume of data sent by the researchers is thus more than double the total global Internet traffic today.

“When our technology is mature enough to be implemented in the existing transmission systems, it’ll have the potential to benefit billions of Internet users who’ll have access to cheaper, more eco-friendly, ultra-broadband connections. It may well become a driving force for omnipresent connection via 5G, the ‘Internet of Things’ and cloud services that we are sure to see appearing in the immediate future,” adds Leif Oxenløwe.