Scientists manipulate light to transmit data

An international team of researchers led by USC engineers have developed a system of transmitting up to 2.56 terabits of data per second – using twisted beams of light.

As broadband cable only supports up to about 30 megabits per second, the twisted-light system is actually capable of transmitting more than 85,000 times more data per second.

According to Professor Alan Willner, the new platform could potentially be used to build high-speed satellite communication links, short free-space terrestrial links, or even adapted for transmission over fiber optic cables.

“You’re able to do things with light that you can’t do with electricity,” Willner explained. “That’s the beauty of light; it’s a bunch of photons that can be manipulated in many different ways at very high speed.”

Essentially, Willner and his colleagues used beam-twisting “phase holograms” to manipulate eight beams of light so that each one twisted in a DNA-like helical shape as it propagated in free space. Each of the beams had its own individual twist and can be encoded with “1” and “0” data bits, making each an independent data stream – much like separate channels on a radio.

During the demonstration, Willner’s team managed to transmit the data over open space in a lab, attempting to simulate the type of communications that might occur between satellites in space. 

The next step for USC researchers? To analyze how beam-twisting “phase holograms” could be adapted for use in fiber optics, like those frequently used to transmit data over the Internet.

“We didn’t invent the twisting of light, but we took the concept and ramped it up to a terabit-per-second,” Willner added.