Speed of light made faster (Update)

August 20, 2005

Swiss researchers have successfully demonstrated for the first time that it is possible to control the speed of light in an optical fiber.

On the screen, a small pulse shifts back and forth – just a little bit. But this seemingly unremarkable phenomenon could have profound technological consequences. It represents the success of Luc Thйvenaz and his fellow researchers in the Nanophotonics and Metrology laboratory at EPFL in controlling the speed of light in a simple optical fiber. They were able not only to slow light down by a factor of three from its well – established speed c of 300 million meters per second in a vacuum, but they've also accomplished the considerable feat of speeding it up – making light go faster than the speed of light.

This is not the first time that scientists have tweaked the speed of a light signal. Even light passing through a window or water is slowed down a fraction as it travels through the medium. In fact, in the right conditions, scientists have been able to slow light down to the speed of a bicycle, or even stop it altogether. In 2003, a group from the University of Rochester made an important advance by slowing down a light signal in a room-temperature solid. But all these methods depend on special media such as cold gases or crystalline solids, and they only work at certain well-defined wavelengths. With the publication of their new method, the EPFL team, made up of Luc Thйvenaz, Miguel Gonzalйz Herraez and Kwang-Yong Song, has raised the bar higher still. Their all-optical technique to slow light works in off-the-shelf optical fibers, without requiring costly experimental set-ups or special media. They can easily tune the speed of the light signal, thus achieving a wide range of delays.

"This has the enormous advantage of being a simple, inexpensive procedure that works at any wavelength, notably at wavelengths used in telecommunications," explains Thйvenaz.

The telecommunications industry transmits vast quantities of data via fiber optics. Light signals race down the information superhighway at about 186,000 miles per second. But information cannot be processed at this speed, because with current technology light signals cannot be stored, routed or processed without first being transformed into electrical signals, which work much more slowly. If the light signal could be controlled by light, it would be possible to route and process optical data without the costly electrical conversion, opening up the possibility of processing information at the speed of light.

This is exactly what the EPFL team has demonstrated. Using their Stimulated Brillouin Scattering (SBS) method, the group was able to slow a light signal down by a factor of 3.6, creating a sort of temporary "optical memory." They were also able to create extreme conditions in which the light signal travelled faster than 300 million meters a second. And even though this seems to violate all sorts of cherished physical assumptions, Einstein needn't move over – relativity isn't called into question, because only a portion of the signal is affected.

Slowing down light is considered to be a critical step in our ability to process information optically. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) considers it so important that it has been funnelling millions of dollars into projects such as "Applications of Slow Light in Optical Fibers" and research on all-optical routers. To succeed commercially, a device that slows down light must be able to work across a range of wavelengths, be capable of working at high bit-rates and be reasonably compact and inexpensive.

The EPFL team has brought applications of slow light an important step closer to this reality. And Thйvenaz points out that this technology could take us far beyond just improving on current telecom applications. He suggests that their method could be used to generate high-performance microwave signals that could be used in next-generation wireless communication networks, or used to improve transmissions between satellites. We may just be seeing the tip of the optical iceberg.

Explore further: Increased speed of engineered human cell response

Related Stories

Increased speed of engineered human cell response

January 28, 2019

Researchers from the National Institute of Chemistry in Slovenia have developed a novel approach to regulate human cell response, endowing cells to respond to extracellular stimuli in minutes instead of hours. The authors ...

Siemens boss blasts EU over Alstom rail merger

January 30, 2019

Joe Kaeser, chief executive of German conglomerate Siemens, launched Wednesday a rare broadside against the European Commission, complaining that "backwards-looking technocrats" threatened to block a planned rail merger with ...

Recommended for you

EPA adviser is promoting harmful ideas, scientists say

March 22, 2019

The Trump administration's reliance on industry-funded environmental specialists is again coming under fire, this time by researchers who say that Louis Anthony "Tony" Cox Jr., who leads a key Environmental Protection Agency ...

Coffee-based colloids for direct solar absorption

March 22, 2019

Solar energy is one of the most promising resources to help reduce fossil fuel consumption and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to power a sustainable future. Devices presently in use to convert solar energy into thermal ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.