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European enables high-speed telecommunication networks

The global knowledge economy relies on the quick transfer of vast amounts of data into all corners of the world. Today, annual internet traffic amounts to roughly 50 exabytes or 50 quintillion bytes per year. To put this in perspective, the internet now transmits the amount of data equivalent to 50 000 libraries of congress in one year. In the course of one day, the amount of information comparable to 150 billion books is transferred. These figures are growing and show no signs of slowing.

Consequently, today's telecommunications industry is a huge business. In 2010, revenues for the global optical transport market exceeded $12 billion dollars. Networking and telecommunications market research group, the Dell' Oro Group, predicts this figure will rise to $17 billion by 2015.

Playing a central role in this market is French inventor Emmanuel Desurvire, whose work with Erbium-Doped-Fibre-Amplifiers (EDFAs) has earned him a nomination in the prestigious Lifetime achievement category for the 2011 European Inventor of the Year Award. The award will be presented on 19 May at a ceremony in Budapest.

Desurvire's invention of EDFAs and his subsequent work in improving this technology have enabled the transfer of substantial amounts of information at high speeds and across long distances - all without a loss of data. EDFA devices and technologies are at the core of both terrestrial and sub-oceanic fibre cables. Without them, the internet would not exist as we recognise it today.

The road to EDFAs

Before the implementation of EDFAs in telecommunications systems, fibre optic systems transmitted information across the Atlantic at the speed of approximately 280 megabytes. To prevent data loss across long distances, devices called electronic repeaters were required about every 100 km. Today, the use of EDFAs has allowed data to be transferred at a speed of 10 000 gigabytes - more than a 10 000 fold improvement in capacity - without the need for extra equipment.

The development of EDFAs began in the early 1960s, when Elias Snitzer first successfully doped fibres with the rare element erbium. Yet because he lacked a method for exciting the atoms in his doped fibres, his invention had minimal practical use.

The path to EDFAs continued in the 1970s with a series of technological advancements. First and foremost, technology emerged in which data could be transferred via light in optical fibre cables. Subsequent improvements, such as wavelength division multiplexing (WDM) technology, substantially increased data-handling capacities. The only problem that remained was that signals were lost over long distances of fibre cables. In order to successfully transmit information at long distance, the fibres needed an amplification device.

Facilitating a new era of communication

By the mid-1980s, two separate groups began working on the creation of optical fibre amplifiers: one team led by Professor David Payne at the University of Southampton, and another group at AT&T Bell Labs. Desurvire joined the AT&T team in 1986.

The following year, Desurvire and his colleagues produced working results just a few months after the University of Southampton published similar findings. Today, both teams are credited with simultaneously developing the world's first EDFAs.

Desurvire's team also developed a process of co-doping fibres with both erbium and aluminum. The addition of aluminum helped dissolve the erbium at a uniform rate - necessary for data transmission. Additionally, the team discovered that EDFAs were immune to inter-channel crosstalk, enabling WDM signal transmission, such as broadband internet traffic.

After the advancements made by both Desurvire and Payne's research groups, one hurdle remained: to demonstrate an effective EDFA pumped by a semiconductor laser. In 1989, Masataka Nakazawa led NTT in the development of a compact laser diode chip to pump the fibre and the erbium within it. This invention completed the last necessary step for a practically usable EDFA.

Large growth potential

Since then, EDFAs have been used in both terrestrial and sub-oceanic fibre cable networks. They have also been implemented in such applications as high-power lasers for car manufacturing and defence and surgical lasers.

The demand for EDFAs continues to increase. Above average growth is expected for both the short range and the long range WDM segments - technology that depends on EDFAs to function. 

Global telecommunications provider, Ericsson, anticipates that the amount of data transported through optical fibres will increase sharply in the coming years, driven in particular by developments in video like High Definition television and Internet Protocol television services.

Overall, increased demand for data will be reflected in the market by a growing need for WDM technology and specifically EDFAs.