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Paving the way for high-speed internet

Emmanuel Desurvire

Global communication was a technology still in its infancy just two decades ago. One of the milestones in the development of global communications is an invention by French physicist Emmanuel Desurvire and his colleagues, who found a way to speed up data transmission and expand its reach to a global scale. Using optical amplifiers doped with the element erbium, they could transfer more data through optical fibres, over virtually unlimited distances - revolutionising global communications.

Inventor: Emmanuel Desurvire, France

Invention: Method of operating concatenated optical amplifiers

Sector: Telecommunications

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Prior to Desurvire's invention, optical fibres were able to transmit light over a distance of merely up to around 100 to 150 kilometres, as the signals became progressively absorbed along the way.

Electronic regenerators were needed to boost the signal to last for another 100 to 150 kilometres. The regenerators used at the time turned the optical signals into electronic ones before converting them into optical signals again, thus being severely limited in capacity and speed.

Along with his colleague at AT&T. Randy Giles, he found out that optical fibres are able to transmit data over much longer distances if they are periodically reamplified through short segments of fibres doped with the chemical element erbium. Other major global contributors were David Payne (University of Southampton) and Masataka Nakazawa (then at NTT Labs in Japan).

The scientists found out that if erbium is placed into fibreglass, it acts like a laser, amplifying light signals. Short strands of erbium-doped fibres would then act as high-speed in-line optical amplifiers, without need for electronic regeneration.

The erbium-doped optical fibre amplifier (EDFA) was born.

As the erbium atoms inside the fibre were energised through an auxiliary laser chip, telecommunication signals at different channel wavelengths fed into the EDFA picked up this energy as they passed through, without interfering with each other.

When worldwide demand for voice and high-speed internet connectivity expanded drastically, EDFAs markedly enhanced the bandwidth of fibre-optic networks at an affordable cost. EDFAs increased fibre-optic transmission capacity by a factor of 100 000, impacting the entire telecommunication industry and operator services.

Today, EDFAs have been deployed ubiquitously in all kinds of optical networks, both terrestrial and undersea. Other applications include high-power lasers for car manufacturing and defence and surgical lasers.

Desurvire has received many accolades in recognition of his outstanding research efforts, which include the International Commission for Optics Prize in 1994, the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Engineering in 1998, the William Streifer Scientific Achievement Award in 2005,the IEEE/LEOS John Tyndall Award and the France-Telecom Prize in 2007. Together with Payne and Giles, he is also laureate of the 2008 Millennium Technology Prize. Desurvire, who has authored over 200 papers and five reference books, holds 35 patents.