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A completely new plasmonic chip for ultrafast data transmission using light

The new, highly compact chip brings together the fastest electronic and light-based elements in a single component for the first time. Credit: ETH Zurich/Nature Electronics

Researchers from ETH Zurich have achieved what scientists have been attempting to do for some 20 years: in their laboratory work as part of European Horizon 2020 research projects, they have manufactured a chip on which fast electronic signals can be converted directly into ultrafast light signals—with practically no loss of signal quality. This represents a significant breakthrough in terms of the efficiency of optical communication infrastructures that use light to transmit data, such as fiber optic networks.

In cities like Zurich, these fiber optic networks are already being used to deliver high-speed internet, digital telephony, TV, and network-based video or audio services ("streaming"). However, by the end of this decade, even these optical communication networks may reach their limits when it comes to rapid data transmission.

This is due to the growing demand for online services for streaming, storage and computation, as well as the advent of artificial intelligence and 5G networks. Today's optical networks achieve data transmission rates in the region of gigabits (109 bits) per second. The limit is around 100 gigabits per lane und wavelength. In the future, however, transmission rates will need to reach the terabit region (1012 bits per second). "The rising demand will call for new solutions," says Juerg Leuthold, ETH Professor of Photonics and Communications. "The key to this paradigm shift lies in combining electronic and photonic elements on a single chip." The field of photonics (the science of light particles) studies optical technologies for the transmission, storage and processing of information.

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