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Polymers could push Internet speed

Researchers at Bell Labs clear the first hurdle to potentially increasing Internet speeds to well above today's fastest rates.

Researchers at Bell Labs have cleared the first hurdle to potentially increasing Internet speeds to well above today's fastest rates.

The scientists at Lucent Technologies' research arm have demonstrated in a controlled laboratory setting that certain polymer materials have physical properties to channel data signals at tremendous speeds. The rate could approach a heady 145GHz--much faster than widely used optical networks that typically clock in at about 10GHz, or 10 billion cycles per second.

"Basically, we are cramming a lot more electrical data onto an optical light wave in one second," said Mark Lee, one of the authors of the findings to be published Thursday in the online edition of Science Magazine.

If such advances could be extended beyond the lab, the ability to transfer massive video and audio files in real time could become a reality.

Although bandwidth speeds can approach 40GHz, Lee said that today's materials can't be pushed to much faster data rates. Over the past five years, however, polymers have shown great promise in overcoming that obstacle. Polymers are chemicals made of large molecules in repeated structural units.

"What we have done here specifically is to select the set of polymers with the right properties that can function at very fast speeds," Lee said.

When a person types an e-mail, for instance, the data is converted into electrical data signals. For that electrical voltage to be carried over an optical network, it has to be has to be put onto a light wave, which then travels over a fiber-optic line, Lee explained.

He cautioned, however, that the advances are unlikely to make their way into the market for another five years at least, citing several hurdles yet to be faced.

"We can say that in the lab we managed to cram a lot more data onto a light wave per second, but we haven't said anything about how to transmit that data across a few hundred miles, for instance," Lee said. "At these speeds, the information contained in that light wave will degrade over the optical fiber fairly rapidly--that is a problem you run into at high-speed communications."

Despite the hurdles still ahead, polymers may help reduce the cost of building optical equipment. Lee said polymers are relatively cheap to manufacture.