Connecting internet superhighways to keep up with data demands

A team of researchers from Monash, RMIT, University of Adelaide and the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications have created a fingernail-sized chip to more efficiently route our internet’s data to its destination.

The challenge:

With more data transferred than ever, we need infrastructure to keep up

As we send more data around the world via our internet’s optical fibre superhighways, we need more complex infrastructure to keep up.

A key breakthrough in 2020 including researchers Monash, RMIT and Swinburne universities demonstrated the world’s fastest internet on a single optical fibre at 42.1 Terabits per second – enough to download 1,000 HD movies in a second by adding data highways with hundreds of extra lanes.

However, a key challenge was to access these hundreds of new lanes and move the data from one highway to another. Currently, switching data between each highway is done with equipment about the size of a pack of cigarettes, which takes up valuable space in exchanges and roadside cabinets. Miniaturising these systems could help to speed up our data transfer.

The response:

Designing a chip capable of calibrating itself to act as a data highway interchange

Researchers at Monash, RMIT, the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications and the University of Adelaide have miniaturised the data-switching equipment and shrunk it to a fingernail sized photonic integrated chip. The chip can operate reliably, even when subject to vibrations and temperature changes. It also allows the data to take the most direct, efficient route to its destination.

The chip separates light colours and can steer them to different input/output fibres. In optical communications, each light colour can carry a different message, so by separating colours, the chip can route these messages to their correct destinations. But this only works if the chip can be kept ‘in tune’. The separation is done by optical interference, which is critically dependent on precise time delays within the chip.

The results:

A programmable and self-calibrating chip to more efficiently route data to its destination

In 2022, the team created a chip the size of a fingernail that is both programmable and self-calibrating. This finding was published in Nature Photonics. The chip begins almost as a blank slate, then once it’s installed, the user can decide what they want to do with it.

These advances complement Monash, RMIT and Swinburne’s previous demonstration of information along a fibre from a single laser (42.1 Terabits per second), where it is now possible to switch the data to different destinations reliably.

This chip can adjust itself to adapt to any network’s requirements, providing a plug-and-play solution the size of a credit card that be installed anywhere in the world.

Also, the new chip can support the researchers’ advances in pattern matching – one of the fundamental operations in computers and signal processing. With a more compact packaged chip the size of a credit card, it could benefit many different applications, including:

  • creating safer driverless cars capable of interpreting their surroundings almost instantaneously

 

  • rapidly reconfiguring optical networks that carry our internet, to get data where it’s needed in the same quality as it was sent
  • enabling AI to rapidly diagnose medical conditions, by speeding up pattern identification
  • making natural language processing even faster for smart home devices

World first self-calibrated photonic-chip

Team

  • Xingyuan (Mike) Xu, Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications (previously Monash University)
  • Arthur Lowery, Monash University
  • Arnan Mitchell, RMIT University
  • Andreas Boes, University of Adelaide (previously RMIT University)
  • Xumeng Liu, Monash University
  • Tim Feleppa, Monash University
  • Guanghui Ren, RMIT University

Read more about the team’s research in the Nature Communications paper here

Researcher profiles

Dr William (Bill) Corcoran

Bill is an optical communications researcher focusing on using novel photonic technologies to fix problems in the systems underpinning the backbone of the internet.

Professor Arthur Lowery

Arthur’s work in developing bespoke photonic devices for optical communications has driven innovation globally.

Professor Arnan Mitchell

Distinguished Professor Arnan Mitchell is an expert in integrated photonics who works with academics and industry to create technology solutions with real world impact.