Photonic Chips, The Secret of Future Optical Communications

Fibre optics is the backbone of the telecommunications industry, the technology behind the internet revolution. But although the next generation of optical telecommunications networks promises greatly increased bandwidth, it also requires novel components for signal processing that are beyond the scope of today's electronics.

At the University's Centre of Excellence for Ultrahigh-bandwidth devices for Optical Systems - CUDOS for short - researchers are looking to develop a new all-optical signal processing device that would allow hundred-fold increases in the rate at which information is transmitted.

The centre has recently received an injection of $7.5 million in Australian Research Council funding, which will allow its work in photonics to continue for another three years.

"Our vision is to dispense with electronics and build all-optical signal processing devices which can be miniaturised onto a photonic chip," explained Ben Eggleton, an ARC Federation Fellow in the School of Physics who is also director of CUDOS.

In current optical fibre systems, signals transmitted via optical fibres must pass through racks of electronics in order to regenerate, buffer and switch that signal. This creates a bottleneck of information as light signals are converted to electronic signals and back again.

But researchers at CUDOS have developed a photonic chip that is capable of replacing the electronic racks responsible for regenerating optical signals. The chip can analyse the light, store and slow it down, regenerate it and 'switch' it - that is, determine which path is takes. And it's all done without electronics.

"Ultimately we are pursuing a device that would remove the need to convert light to electronic signals and back, be the size of a thumbnail, cost a fraction of a router, and consume very little power," said Professor Eggleton. "Because regeneration won't rely on electronics, it's much faster," he added.

CUDOS has identified and started working with at least three different end-users and has started to apply the photonic chip to applications outside traditional telecommunications. "These include the next generation optical communications systems, advanced defence communications and a range of mid-infrared sensing applications, including astronomy," said Associate Professor Anne Green, head of the School of Physics.

The research at CUDOS will be organised as six major projects, utilising researchers' expertise in microphotonic and nonlinear photonics, with 12 new partner investigators from Australian industry, defence and research institutions, as well as international partners from Europe, the USA and Asia-Pacific.

Based in the School of Physics, CUDOS involves researchers from Sydney University, the Australian National University, Macquarie University, Swinburne University of Technology and the University of Technology, Sydney. From 2008 RMIT University will join the collaboration.

CUDOS chief investigators at Sydney University are Professor Ben Eggleton, Professor Martijn de Sterke (associate director) and Professor Ross McPhedran. Dr Chris Walsh, the chief operations officer, is also based at Sydney.

CUDOS was one of 14 ARC Centres of Excellence - and one of two Sydney University ARC Centres - to have its funding renewed. The University's ARC Centre of Excellence for Autonomous Systems, under the directorship of Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte, received an injection of funding worth $5,200,000.

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