Smart research for a faster, cheaper, more efficient Internet
16 February 2018
Our Spotlight on Research speaks to this week's recipient of the President's Award for Research, Professor Liam Barry, Professor in DCU School of Electronic Engineering, Principal Investigator at IPIC, Researcher with CONNECT and Co-Founder of Pilot Photonics.
Congratulations you have just won a DCU President’s Award for Research, and in the same week the company you co-founded, Pilot Photonics, announced it had secured investment of over €1.2 million
“Yes there has been a lot going on this week. I’m really delighted to get the President’s Award. When you have been in the University for 20 years and you build up a research team and a body of work, it is nice for the university to recognise the work of that team.”
So, what do you work on?
“I work at the physical layer of communications systems. When you use the Internet, information travels along a physical network of optical fibres. Even when you use wireless or mobile, it connects to a base station which in turn links into this optical fibre network, so it’s like the backbone or core of the Internet. My research is looking to enable information to be transferred faster along those fibres, and to ensure the data can be transferred in an energy-efficient manner. I’m also interested in developing cost-effective technologies to bring optical fibre right into people’s houses and businesses, which will support more efficient Internet connections.”
How do you make that happen?
“One of the technologies I work on is tunable lasers, which generate the information signals that propagate along the optical fibres. These tunable lasers are able to emit light on different wavelengths (or colours), and their use tends to be limited to the core networks because of their cost. We would like to make these lasers more cost-efficient and practical to use, so that they are more accessible for developing high capacity optical networks that connect directly to residential and business users. I also work on developing laser sources known as optical frequency combs that simultaneously generate light on multiple wavelengths (colours).
I co-founded a DCU spin-out company called Pilot Photonics in 2011 to commercialise this technology, which looks to pack the information channels or wavelengths together very closely in the core networks of optical fibres to use the available spectrum as efficiently as possible. The optical frequency combs allow the information channels to be generated in an energy efficient manner and ensure that the wavelength channels don’t interfere with each other. It’s a bit like reducing the spacing between lanes on a motorway so that you can have more lanes and more cars can travel. If the cars know the exact position of the other cars, they can adjust so as not to crash into the cars in the lanes beside them, even if they are very close.”
What impact do you see your work having in the future?
“If you think about 20 years ago, people were using the Internet to send texts and emails, but today we are streaming video and talking on FaceTime and the demand for those information-heavy uses is going to grow as more people and more devices get connected. We need to be able to move information across the networks quickly and in a way that does not use so much energy that it becomes prohibitive. That’s where I see our research enabling future Internet use.”
What is your typical day like?
“That really depends on the day. Some days I am teaching, and that involves preparing and delivering lectures and talking to students with queries afterwards. Other days I am in the lab working with the PhD students and researchers and trying to figure out how to solve problems and progress the different research projects. I also spend time working on research papers and project reports, and I read through the relevant research literature and help the researchers in my lab write their journal and conference papers. I like that variety in my work.”
And what do you do to take a break from the research?
“I enjoy doing exercise to clear my head. I swim a lot and I use the gym. It’s good to do something physical instead of mental.”