Polymer cables can match fiber optic’s speed and copper’s simplicity

Though both consumers and businesses have mostly shifted to fiber optic cables, copper still remains in use due to how much simpler and cheaper it is to deploy. Now, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed polymer cables that combine the speed of the former with the simplicity of the latter.

The study, which was partially funded by Intel, the Naval Research Laboratory, the Office of Naval Research and Raytheon was presented during the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) International Solid-State Circuits Conference held last February. The new transmission method presented utilizes a pair of high-frequency silicon chips and polymer cable that is said to be as thin as a strand of hair. (Read: Latest tech lets electronics be drawn on your own skin)

According to lead author Jack Holloway, the rise of cloud computing, big data and the internet has led to an ever-increasing demand for data exchange. But this data is usually carried through a copper wire medium. But the problem with copper wire is that the medium consumes a lot of power and according to Jack has a “fundamental tradeoff” between the amount of energy consumed and the rate of information exchanged in the process.

Alternatives such as fiber optic cable, on the other, have been quite prevalent over the recent years as the cables provide incredible data transmission speeds with the use of photos while not needing incredible amounts of energy similar to that of a typical copper cable. But fiber optic is more complicated to deploy than copper cable due to its use of light to transmit data. As Holloway explains it “no way to efficiently generate, amplify, or detect photons in silicon.” He added that integration schemes for silicon to fiber optics are “expensive and complex” and that are not necessarily great in terms of “economical perspective.”

The polymer cable addresses both limitations and combines strong qualities of both media—it doesn’t cost much to manufacture and doesn’t consume much power like traditional copper and coaxial cables, but at the same time is capable to operate and transmit at sub-terahertz frequencies. This is around the same efficiency that fiber optics while still being “directly compatible with silicon chips, without any special manufacturing”

In terms of size, the polymer cable only has a cross-sectional area spanning 0.4mm by a quarter mm. Despite this, the total reported bandwidth of the link is around 105 Gigabits per second which is significantly faster than its copper counterparts.  While that speed is already incredible in itself, work is being done to further optimize the speeds that pass through these cables.

While polymer cables have yet to reach mass production, their potential is quite plain so see. With their ability to provide the same amount of bandwidth as fiber optic cables at a much lower cost, they could help bring higher speed internet to more people in the future.

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