The University of Southampton

Deputy Director Professor David Richardson: Profile

Published: 5 July 2013

Physical Sciences and Engineering speaks with Professor David Richardson, Deputy Director of the Optoelectronics Reasearch Centre (ORC) about his role and how he became interested in photonics.

You joined the Optoelectronics Research Centre in 1989 – what drew you specifically into photonics? 

I was previously working in the field of fundamental physics working on precise tests of time reversal symmetry with neutrons and on topological phase in quantum mechanics - fascinating science but a little far removed from the everyday day life of most of us. Around the same time measurements of topological phase were also being undertaken in optical fibres. This piqued my interest in photonics and after reading around the subject a little more I decided on a change in field and this ended up with me taking a postdoctoral position here at Southampton. I was either the first or second recruit to the then recently established ORC and I have remained here ever since. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have made the switch as it has allowed me so much freedom in terms of evolving my research and has enabled me to engage with a very wide range of application areas which always keeps life interesting.

Tell us a little about your role in the ORC. 

I am currently a Deputy Director of the ORC, a role I have held for the past 13 years. Managing the ORC has not been without its challenges over the years, not least due to the Mountbatten Building fire in 2005 and the major changes in both the internal and external environment in recent times. Despite these challenges it is very pleasing now to be close to having a fully operational cleanroom again and to see the ORC/faculty setting the photonics research agenda on so many fronts. In terms of my own immediate research activities, I run groups working on optical fibre communications, high power fibre lasers and microstructured fibre technology. Given these diverse activities my attention might turn on a given day from understanding glass flow and properties on the nanoscale, through the design and fabrication of radically new fibre types, to the realisation of ever more powerful and functional lasers for industrial materials processing - life is certainly never short of problems to work on! A lot of my effort at present is focussed on developing novel optical communications devices and networks capable of transporting and processing unprecedented volumes of data traffic. 

You are technical coordinator for a major EU funded project, Mode-Gap, what is the aim of the project? 

Mode-Gap is a hugely ambitious project focussed on developing radically new forms of fibre technology capable of supporting 100x the data carrying capacity of current single-mode fibre systems, which have now been optimised in the laboratory to operate at close to the fundamental information theory limit (nonlinear Shannon limit) of 100 Terabit/s (1014 bit/s). The highest capacity commercial systems now being installed can operate at 10 Terabit/s and the 30-40% growth in annual data traffic is such that there is fear of a so called “capacity crunch” in 5-10 years that will constrain future growth of the internet. In the face of this concern, Mode-Gap proposes to develop multimode transmission techniques for long haul communications that allow multiple simultaneous independent data pathways through the fibre rather than the one used to date. Moreover, in the ultimate embodiment, it proposes to use hollow core, photonic bandgap fibre (HC-PBGF) rather than solid silica fibres to transmit the signals, since propagating the signal in air eliminates the nonlinearity which limits data transfer in solid fibres, and offers the potential for lower signal attenuation per unit length. Fortunately the EU bought into our vision despite it being so radical at the time of submission, and we have been hard at work with our partners to realise the project goals for the past two and a half years. We have made excellent progress with many of the key principles and objectives already demonstrated. Eighteen months of the project remain to reduce the fibre losses and to demonstrate the ultimate scalability of the approach. 

You’ve had recent success at both the Optical Fibre Communications (OFC) and European Conference on Optical Communications (ECOC) Postdeadline Sessions – what papers did you present? 

In our field, the Postdeadline Sessions at OFC and ECOC provide the focus for presenting the latest advances in Optical Communications. Getting papers accepted for presentation in these sessions is hugely competitive, with the bulk of papers presented by the largest and best-funded industrial labs (e.g. Alcatel Lucent Bell Labs (USA), NTT (Japan), NEC(USA) etc). We have done exceptionally well for a University in these sessions over the years, but probably never as well as in the last couple of years as a result of our work in Mode-Gap. For example, at ECOC 2012 we authored/co-authored 3 papers ( 10% of the presentations). These included a world record data capacity (73Tbit/s) over an amplified multimode transmission line (with Nokia Siemens), the first demonstration of amplified data transmission at 2000nm in a HC-PBGF, and the first demonstration of Wavelength Division Multiplexed (WDM) transmission system at 2000nm (a potential new broadband, low-loss transmission window for optical communications). At OFC 2013 we had 2 further postdeadline papers - the first demonstrating multimode transmission in a PBGF and the second a new method to generate high spectral efficiency coded signals. These papers all represented key milestones in the realisation of the ultimate Mode-Gap project goal of demonstrating a route to x100 the data carrying capacity of SMF systems. We are currently organising ECOC 2013 to be held at ExCel London late in September and we aim to have further high profile results to present there to. 

What’s next? 

In the short term at least, we will be concentrating on developing new technologies for ultrahigh capacity optical communication systems operating at the Petabit/s level and working closely with various partners both within industry and academia to maximise the reach and impact of our work. At the same time we will be looking to push forward our high power laser research both in terms of performance and the range of applications that we apply it to – especially to the medical/health care sectors. We are even part of a growing and increasingly strong consortium looking to combine the output of up to a million pulsed fibre lasers into a single beam as a means to build a new generation of particle accelerators beyond the Large Hadron Collider. As far as ambitious projects are concerned this makes Mode-Gap look like a stroll in the park. Find out more about David's groups.

Catch up on the latest news from the Mode-gap programme.

Learn more about building a new generation of particle accelerators at CERN with ICAN.

Back to FPSE News.

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