A multi-national team led by the University of Southern California (USC) has developed a way of transmitting data using twisted beams of light at up to 2.56 terabits per second.
To put that in perspective, broadband cable (which you probably used to download this) supports on average about 30 megabits per second. The twisted light system is over 85,000 times faster.
Their work could be used to build high-speed satellite communication links, short free-space terrestrial links, or potentially be adapted for use in the fiber optic cables that are used by some Internet service providers.
"You're able to do things with light that you can't do with electricity," said Alan Willner, electrical engineering professor at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and the corresponding author of an article that was published in Nature Photonics on 24th June. "That's the beauty of light; it's a bunch of photons that can be manipulated in many different ways at very high speed."
Willner and his team used beam-twisting "phase holograms" to manipulate eight beams of light so that each twisted in a DNA-like helical shape as it propagated in free space. Each beam had its own individual twist and was encoded with "1" and "0" data bits, making each an independent data stream – much like separate channels on your radio.
Their demonstration transmitted data over open space in a lab, attempting to simulate the sort of communications that might occur between satellites in space. Among the next steps for their research will be to advance how it could be adapted for use in fiber optics, like those frequently used to transmit data over the Internet.
The team's work builds on research done by Leslie Allen, Anton Zeilinger, Miles Padgett and their colleagues at several European universities.
"We didn't invent the twisting of light, but we took the concept and ramped it up to terabits-per-second," Willner said.
FutureTimeline.net predicts that on current trends, terabit connections will be common in homes and offices by the early 2030s.