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Plastic Filter to Boost Optical Communication

Photonics.com
May 2010
TEL AVIV, Israel, May 5, 2010 — A new nano-based technology that can make computers and the Internet hundreds of times faster could make its way to the nanophotonics market within the next 5 to 10 years.

Dr. Koby Scheuer of Tel Aviv University's School of Electrical Engineering developed a technology that manufactures optical devices and components. His plastic-based "filter" is made from nanometer-sized grooves embedded into the plastic. When used in fiber optic cable switches, this new device will make communication devices smaller, more flexible and more powerful, he said.

"Once Americans have a fiber optics cable coming into every home, all communication will go through it – telephone, cable TV and the Internet. But to avoid bottlenecks of information, we need to separate the information coming through into different channels. Our polymeric devices can do that in the optical domain –– at a speed, quality and cost that the semiconductor industry can't even imagine," Scheuer said.

Filtering the noise from the information

Every optical device used in today's communication tools has a filter. Whether it's the drive reader in a MacBook or the cable that brings cheap long-distance phone calls to a phone, each system uses filters to clean up the signal and interpret the different messages. In the next decade, fiber optic cables that now run from city to city will feed directly into every individual home. When that technology comes to light, the new plastic-based switches could revolutionize the way we communicate.

"Right now, we could transmit all of the written text of the world though a single fiber in a fiber optics cable in just a few seconds," said Scheuer. "But in order to handle these massive amounts of communication data, we need filters to make sense of the incoming information. Ours uses a plastic-based switch, replacing hard-to-fabricate and expensive semiconductors."

Semiconductors, grown on crystals in sterile labs and processed in special ovens, take days and sometimes months to manufacture. They are delicate and inflexible as well, Scheuer said. "Our plastic polymer switches come in an easy-to-work-with liquid solution. Using a method called 'stamping,' almost any laboratory can make optical devices out of the silicon rubber mold we've developed."

The silicon rubber mold is scored with nanosized grooves, invisible to the eye and each less than a millionth of a meter in width. A plastic solution can be poured over the mold to replicate the optical switch in minutes. When in place in a fiber-optic network, the grooves on the switch modulate light coming in through the cables, and the data is filtered and encoded into usable information.

One word of advice: "Plastics"

According to Scheuer, his biggest hurdle is in convincing the communications industry that polymers are stable materials.

"There is a lot of prejudice in this industry against plastics. But this approach could take us to a new level of communication," he said, adding that the process is not much different from the way that mass numbers of DVDs are produced in a factory — except on a nanoscale.

His device can also be used in the gyros of planes, ships and rockets; inserted into cell phones; and made a part of flexible virtual reality gloves so doctors could "operate" on computer networks over large distances.

For more information, visit:  www.aftau.org 



GLOSSARY
nanotechnology
The use of atoms, molecules and molecular-scale structures to enhance existing technology and develop new materials and devices. The goal of this technology is to manipulate atomic and molecular particles to create devices that are thousands of times smaller and faster than those of the current microtechnologies.
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