Nobel Prize for fiber optics pioneer

2009-12-09 Categories: Technology

One of 2009's Nobel laureates in Physics is Charles K. Kao, who discovered how to transmit light through fiber optics and revolutionized the work of telecom companies like Ericsson.

Hans Mickelsson, head of Broadband Technologies at Ericsson Research, says he has been a fan of Kao for many years.

"I am very pleased that he finally won the Nobel Prize," Mickelsson says. "Fiber optics is a cornerstone of today's information society. It is a fundamental tool for basically all transport and transmission networks, and applied in telecom infrastructure ranging from cross-Atlantic fibers to last-mile access."

Kao's 1966 breakthrough – discovering how to transmit light signals over long distances through glass fibers as thin as a human hair – led to the creation of modern fiber-optic communication networks that carry voice, video and high-speed internet data around the world.

Kao will receive the prize on December 10 at an award ceremony in Stockholm. After learning he was a winner of the coveted prize, he said: "I am absolutely speechless and never expected such an honor. The Nobel has never been given out for applied sciences before. Fiber optics has changed the world of information so much in these last 40 years. It certainly is due to the fiber optical networks that the news has traveled so fast."

Kao was recognized by Ericsson for his fiber optics research in 1979, when he and American industrial physicist Robert D. Maurer were awarded the LM Ericsson International Prize for Telecommunications.

For many years, Ericsson has been doing fiber optics research, currently following two main tracks, Mickelsson says.

One track covers Fiber-to-the-x (FTTx), which refers to the use of fiber for residential access and fiber as backhaul, for instance for coping with high-bandwidth traffic to and from base stations, and for demanding IPTV services.

The second track is research into transport networks, looking into high-speed interfaces supporting 100Gbps and beyond.

In that area, the world record was recently broken when Bell Labs managed to send data over a distance of 7000km at a rate of 15.5 terabits per second (Tbps) through one single optical fiber.

Per O Andersson, driver of strategic issues at Group Strategy, says he is deeply impressed by the ingenuity of Kao’s ideas. "Fiber optics will have an increasing impact on the mobile business – the low prices, high traffic volumes, and mass-market reach of mobile services we see today will not continue to grow without the support of fiber infrastructure," he says.

Andersson says that fiber optics is also a significant factor behind the internet revolution.

Kao shared the 2009 Physics prize with Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith, who won for their work on the invention of an imaging semiconductor circuit – the CCD sensor.