The University of Southampton

IYL2015 Garden makes Light work of understanding science

Published: 4 June 2015

The Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) is delighted to be joining with Elks-Smith Landscape & Garden Design to create a Light themed garden at RHS Tatton Flower Show garden for the first time in this United Nations International Year of Light.
The ORC, based at the University of Southampton, has hooked up with BALI Design Excellence award winning garden designer Helen Elks-Smith to design a garden that takes visitors on a journey into the world of light-based technology, photonics and its foremost communications channel, fibre optics.

Drawing parallels with nature throughout, the garden shows how fibre optics, which can transmit light over huge distances, are bundled together to form fibre optic cables capable of transferring vast qualities of data. These pathways encircle our globe under the surface of our earth and seas, forming the backbone of the World Wide Web; the Internet and providing the high-speed telecommunications we take for granted today.

The pavilion roof reflects a 'holey fibre' structure, a new type of optical fibre which allows light to travel faster over longer distances. The parallels between this type of fibre and plant structures (vascular bundles) is striking. Set into the pavilion floor are fibre optic glass 'drops', created as part of the fibre fabrication process. These and the wave-form in the path through the garden are a metaphor for how light reflects internally along the fibres.

The Perspex rods within the landform reference the fibre ‘preforms’ which may be considered in this context as the ‘seeds’ of the optical fibre. During fibre fabrication, the preforms are ‘grown’ as they are heated and drawn out into the lengths of optical fibre - often thinner than a human hair. The finished fibres transmit data in the form of digital light pulses.

The garden highlights the advances in optical fibre technology brought about by research pioneered by the ORC. The incredible growth in internet usage has been made possible by the ORC’s revolutionary developments in the use of fibre optics technology. Scientists at Southampton’s ORC invented the key underlying optical fibre technology which forms the Internet as well as the erbium doped fibre amplifier (EDFA). It is this device in particular, the world’s first practical optical amplifier, which enables light to travel further and faster in fibre-optic cables.

Deanna Standen, ORC Marketing Officer, said: “Significantly the optical fibres that form the infrastructure of the internet and the fibre amplifiers that power it, may be likened to the incredible symbiotic relationship of roots and fungi that our world would be barren without. Many of the fibres fabricated at the ORC have uncommonly similar structure to many plant stems, seeds and other organic matter that nourish our planet.”

Garden designer Helen Elks-Smith said: “I am delighted to be working with the ORC to help raise awareness of its ground breaking research to the public.” Scientists from the University’s public engagement and outreach programmes will be demonstrating in the garden on Wednesday 22nd and Thursday 23rd July during the show. Visit the garden and learn first-hand about this fascinating technology in a beautiful setting.

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