Lasers, high-speed connectivity and a new €1.4m project at Trinity

21 Feb 2017

Image: salajean/Shutterstock

A new investigation into laser technology in optical networks has seen a Trinity professor receive €1.46m from SFI.

Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) is backing a Trinity College Dublin-based investigation into laser technology and its potential benefits to future connectivity.

Prof John Donegan, an investigator at AMBER and Connect (both of which are located at Trinity), is the person tasked with finding out where lasers can take us.

Efficient devices

The €1.46m comes through SFI’s ‘principal investigator’ scheme, looking at how laser technology could deliver more energy-efficient devices for future optical networks.

The idea is that such technology could potentially lead to broadband speeds exceeding 100MB per second, with Nokia Bell Labs already taking an interest in the project.

Optical networks use light to transmit information, though the increase in use of such a practice is set to put a strain on the world’s electricity supply.

“A major impediment to growth in the future is the electrical power required to operate the net,” said Donegan. “Our research will investigate a range of new laser structures that operate with much improved efficiency, and I look forward to further testing our devices with industry.”

Interest in this field is such that NASA is seeking laser communications to develop broadband in space.

NASA said that high data rates will allow researchers to gather science faster, study sudden events such as dust storms or spacecraft landings, and even send video from the surface of other planets.

This includes the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration, which is due for launch in 2019, and will beam laser signals almost 40,000km from a ground station in California to a satellite in geostationary orbit, and then to another relay station.

Prof John Donegan from the school of physics in Trinity College. Image: Trinity College

Prof John Donegan from the school of physics in Trinity. Image: Trinity College Dublin


Donegan’s research will examine the individual semiconductor lasers that currently light up global optical networks, and will attempt to develop lasers that can operate at a range of temperatures without changing wavelength – one of the main contributing factors to energy usage in optical networks.

“These lasers are quite efficient, but still require an in-built cooling system to keep the laser at a precise wavelength,” said Donegan.

“Since hundreds of lasers operate on the network, they cannot be allowed to shift wavelength when they operate. The challenge therefore, is to develop lasers that are ‘athermal’, ie operate at a range of temperatures but do not change wavelength.

“This is the research challenge that we will address with this funding. The research team will also look at a range of different semiconductor laser structures, and work on the integration of new materials sets, coupling semiconductors, oxides and polymers into the standard materials for optical communications lasers.”

Donegan claims that the world’s dependence on wired connectivity is critical.

This project will run until 2022, with five researchers spread across AMBER and Connect.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic