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Published: 22 October 2013

Research in Surrey’s ATI paves way for more energy-efficient telecommunications

A concept developed by Head of Photonics Professor Stephen Sweeney offers a solution to the energy consumption crisis being driven by the internet age.

With internet traffic growing at 60 per cent a year, today’s telecommunications and data networks are being put under increasing strain, requiring cooling systems that consume large amounts of energy – which contributes significantly to the world’s carbon footprint. Working with other members of a major EU-funded project, Head of Photonics Professor Stephen Sweeney is developing a revolutionary type of telecom laser that generates far less heat than conventional technology, and so does not require power-hungry coolers for temperature control. The original idea was conceived and patented by Professor Sweeney who is based at Surrey’s Advanced Technology Institute (ATI) and Department of Physics.

Featured as the lead story in the August/September issue of ‘Compound Semiconductor’ – the main commercial journal for the semiconductor industry – the project is being conducted by BIANCHO (Blsmide and Nitride Components for High temperature Operation). BIANCHO is a four-year €2 million research and development initiative, supported by the European Union Framework 7 programme and involving five leading European research groups from industry and academia, including Surrey’s ATI.

The problem with semiconductor components currently used in telecommunication and data networks (based on InP lasers) is that they waste around 80 per cent of the electrical power input. This is caused by the crystal structure of conventional lasers which causes them to produce more heat than light.

To solve this problem, the BIANCHO project has taken a radical approach. While previous efforts have focused on improving the quality of production processes or incremental changes to chip design, the research team has started from scratch using a new material – bismide alloys – to enable the design of lasers with a different structure, generating far less heat than conventional components.

Focusing on the new research in his editorial, Editor of ‘Compound Semiconductor’ magazine Dr Richard Stevenson writes: “The rewards for these trailblazing researchers could be huge. The promise of telecom lasers that are free from cooling is incredibly appealing. It’s not just the potential to cut costs by eliminating the need for coolers – it’s the substantial energy savings that could result.”

Professor Sweeney comments: “The energy consumption of the internet is increasing exponentially so it is critical to develop new approaches such as this to enable energy-efficient telecommunications. Beyond telecoms our approach has applications in sensing, portable medical devices and security. The potential of our new laser technology is huge.”