The new modulator is much smaller than the existing one, pictured to the left on the same computer screen. Photo: Handout

A research team comprising members from the City University of Hong Kong, Harvard and renowned information technologies laboratory Nokia Bell Labs has fabricated a tiny on-chip lithium niobate electro-optic modulator for faster data transmission at lower costs.

The minuscule device – capable of converting electronic signals from computational devices into optical signals for transmission through optical fibers and vice versa – is set to revolutionize the optoelectronic industry and researchers are said to be looking into its application in the coming 5G communications.

The existing lithium niobate modulators require a high drive voltage from an electrical amplifier, which in turn make telecommunications devices look like bulky electricity guzzlers.

The electro-optic modulator produced in this breakthrough research is only 1 to 2 cm long and its surface area is about 1/100 the size of traditional ones. It is also highly efficient – capable of transmitting data at rates up to 210 gbits/second with less energy consumption and about 1/10 optical losses compared with existing modulators, according to the research team.

In the future, telecoms gear manufacturers will be able to put complementary metal-oxide-semiconductors right next to the new modulators to power them, so products can be more integrated, with less power consumption.

With the advent of optical fiber networks globally, the size, performance and power consumption of lithium niobate modulators is becoming a key factor to consider for telecoms operators, especially when data centers and base stations are forecast to be among the largest electricity users across the telecoms industry.

The advantages of the new modulators are more apparent, to those who look for products to transmit data over long distances or to cover large areas.

The innovation also has strong potential in the coming 5G era, according to CityU, as millimeter wave is used to transmit data in free space but data transmission among 5G base stations and their central computers can be done through electro-optic networks.

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