Researchers say the Internet could hugely benefit from metamaterials that have the ability to slow the light. It's believed that metamaterials may one day replace the bulky and slow electronics that do the routing, paving the way for lighting fast speeds:
High-speed telecommunications routes include fibre-optic cables that span vast distances, carrying different streams of information in different channels—each with its own frequency of light.
As data nears the end of its journey, these frequencies must be separated and sent to their destinations.
The separation is accomplished with bulky equipment that spreads the closely spaced frequencies in the pulses into different detectors.
The light must then be converted into electrical signals which are stored, routed, and turned back into optical signals with lasers. The conversion, besides adding significant cost and complexity, also slows down the data transmission.
"It limits the speed of the whole process to the speed of your electronics," says Dr Chris Stevens from the department of engineering sciences at the University of Oxford.
"The light and the fibres can quite cheerfully sustain a couple of terahertz, but your electronics can't do more than a few gigahertz."
It is at this point that the metamaterials prove most useful. If the light signals could be slowed sufficiently during the switching process, there would be no need for the electrical conversion step.