A team of Canadian researchers say they have discovered a technique that could improve the design and accuracy of lasers used in fibre optic communications equipment.

Monday’s issue of Applied Physics Letters will publish the detailed results of work conducted at the University of Toronto. Called voltage microscopy, the scientists believe they have seen the “”beating heart”” of a laser, known as its active region. This scan of laser’s surface would allow device engineers to see monitor the movement of electrons, which are key to the performance of lasers and, consequently, fibre optic devices.

“”It’s kind of the diagnosis stage, as opposed to the therapy stage,”” said Ted Sargent, a Y of T professor who holds the Nortel Networks Research Chair in Emerging Technologies. “”If electrons are going off in the wrong direction, these stray electrons, we know from these images about how to corral them in the right place.””

In the past, networking firms have used trial and error to improve the performance of one laser over another, but Sargent said voltage microscopy could further the development of tunable lasers and optical amplifiers, which allow for more agile network equipment.

“”Those are two great examples of up-and-coming devices that we really, really need for the network of the future,”” he said.

St. John Dixon-Warren, a physical chemist from Bookham Technology, a U.K.-based optical components manufacturer located in Kanata, Ont., worked with Sargent on the research project. He said lasers examined through voltage microscopy might improve the way they produce the maximum amount of light for the least amount of energy imput and the least amount of heat generated.

“”It helps refine the design when things aren’t working quite right and they’re less efficient than you expected,”” he said. “”You can maybe start to get an idea of if the current is going in a place you didn’t expect.””

Sargent said he expected a number of companies to eventually take advantage of the technique, given that it could allow their R&D departments to make more progress with every iteration of a prototype fibre optic device.

“”Everybody’s always competing with each other to come out with a better laser: higher performance, higher speed, higher data rates, greater Internet capacities,”” he said. “”Our ability to deliver those things is a function of the lasers we produce which generate a light to shine down the fibre optic cable.””

Dixon-Warren, however, said it may take time for an engineering company to design a fab tool capable of managing voltage microscopy.

“”At the moment, this is very much closer to (a situation in which) you hire a graduate student and he spends a great amount of time,”” he said. “”Some of that’s just an engineering issue.””

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