RMIT: Photonics is transforming tech as we know it, here’s how

From developing an early screening tool for ovarian cancer to powering the world’s fastest internet, the science of light is transforming technology and could hold the key to a vibrant new era for Australian manufacturing.

When you use the internet, turn on your smart TV or switch on some LEDs to light your home, you’re reaping the benefits of photonics – the science of generating, manipulating and using light.

Critical tools like laser systems, 3D printers, microscopes and medical diagnostics also rely on this critical, though little-known, field.

Light is the fastest way to transmit information, making it appealing for real-world applications across industries including aerospace, biomedicine and internet communications.

The broad range of applications powered by photonics has made it a booming industry, contributing $4.3 billion to the Australian economy and employing more than 9,500 people in high-tech jobs – according to an industry review.

As the federal government examines ways to revitalise Australia’s manufacturing base, photonics offers a new way forward.

Distinguished Professor Arnan Mitchell is head of RMIT’s Integrated Photonics and Applications Centre, which works with industry to co-develop photonics-based technology.

To celebrate the International Day of Light, RMIT News looks at four ways the University’s photonics research is setting the stage for a brighter future.

1. Filling tiny chips with light to power the world’s fastest internet
Want the power to download 1,000 high-definition movies in a split second? Use the single optical chip that has delivered the world’s fastest internet speeds.

A team of RMIT, Monash University and Swinburne University researchers developed a fingernail-sized device called an optical microcomb, that allows data to be transmitted on each colour wavelength of light at the same time.

The team achieved a data speed of 44.2 terabits per second from a single light source.

Importantly, the world record speeds were achieved by attaching the new optical microcomb device to existing fibre-optic technology like that used across Australia’s National Broadband Network.

These results could fast-track our telecommunications capacity and help to keep up with the demands of driverless cars, medicine, education, finance and e-commerce industries and our streaming addictions!

2. Lighting the way for advanced deep space navigation
Australia is poised to help role in the exploration of space – including the moon, Mars, Venus and other planets in our solar system.

But to play a central role, Australia needs to be able to design and build compact, lightweight and intelligent spacecraft capable of navigating their way through space.

In a collaboration between Boeing and RMIT, Australian space manufacturing is taking a giant leap by using lasers to 3D-print spacecraft and other space products.

Researchers in the Integrated Photonics and Applications Centre are also using light to create miniaturised navigation systems called gyroscopes, which will be compact enough to fit onto tiny satellites and robust enough to survive in space for decades.


3. Making driverless vehicles safer
Our brains could be described as the most sophisticated computers on earth.

They capture and process huge amounts of information from our eyes that help us to make rapid decisions, like slamming the brakes on to avoid a car crash.

Traditionally, the closest thing to emulating these processing speeds were racks of computers, which were too to fit into a driverless car.

But in 2021, an international team, with collaborators at RMIT, demonstrated the world’s fastest and most powerful ‘brain-like’ processor on a light-powered chip smaller than a five-cent piece.

To achieve such rapid processing speeds – at 10 trillion operations per second – the team used an optical microcomb device to allow data to be transmitted on each colour wavelength of light at the same time.

Inspired by the brain’s visual cortex, the researchers created an artificial neural network that could extract key features of raw data, like the shape of a tree or person, teaching it to attach meaning to what it was seeing in real-time.

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4. Light-powered device for early detection of ovarian cancer
Each day in Australia, five women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer and three will die from the disease.

It’s the most lethal gynaecological cancer, with more than 70% of women already at an advanced stage by the time the cancer is detected.

There is no early detection test but RMIT researchers are working to change that, with the help of tiny but powerful biosensing devices, the size of a fingernail.

The team brings together engineering and biomedical experts, led by Mitchell and ovarian cancer specialist Distinguished Professor Magdalena Plebanski.

Photonics has allowed the interdisciplinary team to discover the biological markers present in patients with ovarian cancer, which appear years before symptoms even arise.

The team hopes to create an accessible, reliable and cost-effective screening tool for ovarian cancer.

If successful, this research will save thousands of Australians’ lives, with faster ovarian cancer diagnosis than ever before.

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