Some would say blue, given the amount of sex that can be found on the web. Others might go for black, thinking along the lines of increasing online crime. To many the whole idea of Internet technology is a grey area. But, my friends, thanks to researchers at the Chinese Academy of Science, the University of Leuven in Belgium and Washington State University, the answer could soon become a lot more black and white as they plan to dye the Internet to make it run faster.
No, I have not been on the sherry again, this is a serious technology news story, honest! You see these boffins have been playing around with the electrons of a chromophore, and have discovered a new synthetic form of the organic dye molecule which performs much better than any other ever measured.
It is not getting any clearer yet, is it?
But hold on, and I will try to explain. Optical fiber has been used to transmit data faster and further than other technologies for many years now, indeed the concept goes back to Victorian times but we had to wait until the 1970’s for anything sensible and computer network related of course. Wavelength Division Multiplexing (WDM) essentially joins together numerous optical carrier signals on a single fiber, taking a 10Gbit/s system to a capacity approaching 1.6Tbit/s across a single fibre pair, by utilising different wavelength patterns. In layman’s terms this has led to the broadband revolution because it has allowed the Telco’s to massively increase their network capacity without having to massively increase the amount of fiber they have to lay across the backbone network. Upgrading capacity becomes a matter of just upgrading the multiplexers and demultiplexers at each end of any line, at the network edge.
OK, so we can now accept that the Internet runs, largely, on light. The trouble is that back in 1999 a chap called Mark G. Kuzyk, currently the Boeing Distinguished Professor of Physics and Associate Chair of Physics and Astronomy at Washington State, reported a theoretical limit as to just how strongly light is able to interact with matter. Something that strikes at the very heart of optical networking, and showed that every molecule tested was way short of that limit, at the very best end of the spectrum (if you will excuse the pun) the molecules were 30 times weaker than that maximum. Which is why it should be so fitting that Kuzyk is involved in this latest discovery, a molecule that not only smashes through the theoretical barrier but is also 50 percent more efficient in converting light energy than any other previously tested molecule.
This is important not just to people with large heads wearing white coats, but also to ordinary Internet users looking for a faster online experience because the more efficiently that light can be absorbed and interact with a molecule, so the more energy can be gained from photons and the knock on causation is changing the way electrons behave. Chromophore electrons that carry enough energy can be seen as color, which is why you probably know them better as food coloring or fabric dye.
The newly synthesized chromophore molecules have a particularly confining structure, limiting the range of movement and so enabling a far better interaction with light. It increases the intrinsic hyperpolarizability of the molecule, changing the way that electrons deform within it when two photons merge into one. It is this action that is at the heart of an optical switch, it is this action which has been improved, and by embedding the molecules in a polymer and coating optical fibers it is possible to increase the speed of the transmitted data at the electrical charge level.
Interestingly, while most research has concentrated on smoothing out the bumps in the bridge between the electron donating and receiving parts of the molecule, Kuzyk worked out that the bumpier the better as this enhances light interaction and electron flow. Kuzyk explains this as being an electron that is less like a ball rolling around, but rather one that is in many places at the same time. Because it can interfere with itself during this process, if you add speed bumps you get it to bunch up where you want and so prevent this interference which therefore increases the efficiency of the transfer.
Oh, and to answer the original question: what color is the Internet? If the new chromophore ends up being used within the optical switches that move your data around, the Internet will be, err, transparent. Which, I like to think, is kind of fitting for the information network that interprets censorship as damage and routes around it…