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13 December 2022

Increasing the global bandwidth of optical communications

Optica Foundation funds research in integrated photonics and free-space optical communications to address global bandwidth requirements

  • Optica Foundation 20th Anniversary Challenge advances research in integrated chips, nanotechnology, and the mid-infrared to meet telecommunications demands 
  • Work from researchers in Hong Kong and the United States seeks to address increasing global bandwidth requirements with additional speed and efficiency 

WASHINGTON – The Optica Foundation today issued details on the information research being funded by its 20th Anniversary Challenge. From photonic integration and nanotechnology to free-space optical communication strategies, recipients’ work advances alternative approaches to traditional optical communications in light of growing demand. 

“As we approach the limits of Moore’s Law, we need to seek new ways of addressing the ever-increasing demand for bandwidth,” said Andrew Forbes, a member of the 20th Anniversary Challenge Selection Committee. “The research being conducted by Challenge recipients explores potential paths that respond to the growing workload that’s been building on existing communications capacity.”

Information research efforts from the 20th Anniversary Challenge include the following:


 Increasing Information Processing Capacity and Energy Efficiency

  • Chaoran Huang, Chinese University of Hong Kong, China

Integrated photonic neuromorphic processor enabled intelligent, energy-efficient signal processing for the next-generation communication systems

Research Executive Summary

Global internet traffic continues to grow at exponential rates, and to keep up with its scale, optical communications systems will need to provide 10 times more communication capacity. At the same time, the digital signal processing (DSP) chips that serve as the foundation for these systems must reduce energy per bit by a 10-fold magnitude. This need for both processing capability and energy efficiency creates challenges for today’s systems, but now, new research from Chaoran Huang at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in Hong Kong may have the answer: an integrated photonic neuromorphic processor.

“We need new technology to solve this problem,” shared Huang. “A photonic neural network is a hardware realization of a deep learning model and will allow us to use photonic devices and shifts to process optical communication signals faster and with more power efficiency. We plan to build a photonic neural network chip that can provide the sustainable processing speed and energy efficiency.”

Huang’s design employs the strengths of the intrinsic properties of photonics, deep learning architectures, and integrated photonic technologies to create a system that is anticipated to bring 10 times higher energy efficiency and 1,000 times less processing latency. In addition,  employing silicon photonics as the basis for the chip makes it more cost-effective and accessible for wider industry exploration. 

Building on existing research, within six months, Huang expects to build a small prototype that offers a proof-of-concept demonstration of the integrated photonic neuromorphic processor. Meanwhile, she will identify an approach to engineer a photonic neuron that can provide a speed of over 50Ghz. She then plans to orchestrate the design to incorporate high-speed integrated photonic circuits and high-speed electronic control circuits to increase bandwidth and efficiency. 

“I think this work can make an immediate and transformative impact to the important application of optical communication,” she said.


Steering Bandwidth with Nanotechnology

  • Mark Lawrence, Washington University in St. Louis, USA

Fast, low-power, and high-resolution meta-reflect-arrays for massive space-division-multiplexing

Research Executive Summary

Through access to increased spatial bandwidth, free-space optical communication not only promises to provide a path to coping with the ever-increasing internet traffic flowing through data centers, but it also offers potential for supporting global equity by providing broadband internet access to remote or under-developed regions and providing higher cloud connectivity to consumer electronic devices. But despite these possibilities, today’s technology lacks the efficiency and speed necessary to make the concept a reality. But Mark Lawrence and his team at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., USA, aim to change that, having devised a solution in nanotechnology-based pixels. 

Lawrence’s research focuses on the design, fabrication and testing of nanoscale antennas that exhibit a giant response to very small changes in their local environment. Built from silicon, these “antennas” enhance the substrate’s physical properties to tune the resonant frequencies dynamically and precisely, making them more efficient for free-space optical communications. 

“In my lab, we are making little pixels using nanotechnology that are super sensitive to the tiniest changes in electrical current and harnessing many of these currents in concert to steer optical information between different free-space channels. By minimizing the energy wasted on steering, we can exploit the flexibility to make optical data travel the path consuming the least amount of time and energy. In short, by building optical communication networks from pixels that are supersensitive, it makes the network highly flexible,” he said. 

While Lawrence’s team has designs for the antennas already in play, the fabrication of the most efficient tuning system will take some trial-and-error testing. However, within six months, Lawrence projects they will be able to demonstrate a device of pixels that can be switched independently with high speed and high efficiency. In a year’s time, he hopes to be focusing on the back end of the technology, creating simple programs to better control and drive the antennas towards useful states. 

“This research will lay the groundwork for making picosecond optical displays and more,” said Lawrence. “I want to think about possibilities beyond this first concept and open up what we can do. We essentially are designing a new methodology and approach for building tunable free-space optical devices.” 


Solving Free-Space Optical Communications Challenges in the Mid-Infrared

  • Mengjie Yu, University of Southern California, USA

Integrated high-speed mid-infrared electro-optic modulator for free space optical communication 

Research Executive Summary

The potential for free-space optical communication has led it to be a major focus of industry research and application, with Global Market Insights predicting its rise to a $2 billion USD market by 2027. Such a demand leads to an increased research emphasis to identify viable techniques for maximizing the potential of free-space optics in a range of environments, and to make the outcomes more consistently reliable and efficient across those environments. 

In free-space optical communications, signals have to travel through space and connect with a receiver in a remote site. Devising an approach for better connectivity that moves across land and air without external factors disrupting the data in transit will be essential for the wider application of this concept. 

Now research from Mengjie Yu, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, USA, investigates an approach that capitalizes on the benefits of the mid-infrared by employing integrated photonic technology. Specifically, Yu proposes to design and develop a low-loss integrated electro-optic modulator on thin film lithium niobate in the mid-infrared with the goal of creating a high data link rate faster than using direct current modulation of a quantum cascade laser.

“We need a low-loss modulator in the mid-infrared for free-space optics, and currently, this component is missing,” said Yu. “But with direct modulation in the mid-infrared, we have the potential of transporting considerable amounts of data at a high-speed rate in free space. The key is to leverage an integrated photonic technology.” 

Yu’s first step is to design and develop a product with a really low-loss platform to support high-speed data and low-loss in the mid-infrared. Over the next six months, she expects to generate initial results in simulation, and develop a prototype for more applied testing. 

“This work could be a solution to transfer data at much higher speed with much less energy loss. Overall, free-space optics has the potential to solve the bottleneck of broadband connectivity,” indicated Yu. 


These three distinct research efforts in information systems are made possible by grants awarded through the Optica Foundation’s 20th Anniversary Challenge. Designed to engage early-career professionals in conceptual thinking, the challenge focuses on addressing global challenges in the areas of environment, health and information. Each of the recipients has received $100,000 USD to explore their ideas and take steps toward solving for societal challenges. Recipients expect to report initial results by the second quarter of 2023. For more information and to follow their journeys, visit

About Optica Foundation

Established in 2002, the Optica Foundation carries out charitable activities in support of the society’s student and early career communities. We cultivate the next generation of leaders and innovators as they navigate advanced degree programs and become active members of research, engineering and business worldwide. The foundation also works to secure the endowments for Optica’s awards and honors programs. The foundation is registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit. For more information, visit


About Optica

Optica, Advancing Optics and Photonics Worldwide, is the society dedicated to promoting the generation, application, archiving and dissemination of knowledge in the field. Founded in 1916, it is the leading organization for scientists, engineers, business professionals, students and others interested in the science of light. Optica's renowned publications, meetings, online resources and in-person activities fuel discoveries, shape real-life applications and accelerate scientific, technical and educational achievement. Discover more at:

Media Contacts

Colleen Morrison, CFM Communications,

Ashley Collier, Optica,


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