Graphene well-suited for rapid internet

Introduction: Ben Van Duppen (University of Antwerp) and his international colleagues are paving the way for a successful internet of things.

The ultra-thin material graphene can make the internet several thousand times faster. By cutting the material into very small strips, the researchers from several institutions, including the University of Antwerp, discovered a new effect that could give a strong boost to fibre internet.

Before long, your coffeemaker, lawnmower and your car will all be connected to the worldwide web. The ‘internet of things’ is on its way, and it is likely to change our lives in fundamental ways. One crucial requirement will be for all of these devices to be able to communicate smoothly with each other. Your smartphone will need to tell your coffeemaker when you plan to get up. The devices will thus not operate on their own. They will be directed by various apps, which run on various large servers. For all of these streams of information to flow smoothly, a very rapid internet will be needed.

‘We have discovered a completely new phenomenon that can make fibre internet much faster’, reports Dr Ben Van Duppen , a physicist at the University of Antwerp. In October, Van Duppen won the Flemish PhD Cup for his research on a new type of quick, efficient smartphone using graphene. ‘We had already discovered that graphene, the thinnest material in the world, is very good at playing with laser light. We therefore tried to manipulate the lasers that are used in internet cables. Graphene allowed us to manipulate this laser light at a speed 10,000 times faster than is possible with traditional techniques’.

Mixing lasers
The unique idea came from researchers at the prestigious National Graphene Institute in Manchester. They cut a flake of graphene into extremely narrow strips of around 50 nanometres - about 1/1000th of a human hair. They then directed two lasers onto the strips at the same time. ‘In most cases, two lasers will simply shine through each other’, explains Van Duppen. ‘But now we have introduced a change in this process. By directing the lasers onto the narrow strips, they suddenly became aware of each other, and they became mixed’.

Because the lasers mix together, it is possible to transfer bits and bytes from one laser bundle to another. This makes it possible to create internet signals containing thousands of times more information than is possible with the electrical techniques that are currently used for fibre internet.

The experiments were conducted in the laboratory in Manchester, under the leadership of the Nobel Prize winners who discovered the fascinating material graphene 13 years ago. In order to understand the new phenomenon, the researchers called upon a team of theorists from Genoa, Pisa and Antwerp. ‘As soon as we received the experimental results, we knew that we were dealing with an entirely new phenomenon’, recalls Van Duppen. ‘The signal that was measured in Manchester was many times stronger than could be expected’.

This makes the new phenomenon all the more interesting for a wide variety of possible applications, but the researchers obviously wanted to understand what was happening. ‘Our study indicated that it is important to cut the graphene into strips of exactly the same width’, continues Van Duppen. ‘Only if the width is correct will the strips be able to capture one of the two laser signals and mix it with the other laser’. As it turns out, the researchers had selected precisely the right strips for the experiment in order to obtain such a strong signal, thereby making applications possible.

Graphene is thus both literally and figuratively well suited [VDB1] to boost internet communication. The study was recently published in the professional journal Nano Letters. The team members hope that their research will open new paths for the rapid internet that will help to make the future of the internet of things possible.

Ben Van Duppen (University of Antwerp)