Scientists at the Universities of Southampton and Penn State have found a way to embed electronic components into optical fibres, in a breakthrough that could lead to the creation of super high-speed telecommunications networks.

The integration of optical fibres and chips has traditionally caused problems, because fibres are cylindrical and chips are flat. An optical fibre is ten times smaller than the width of a human hair, and many chips contain light-guiding pathways that can be 100 times smaller than the fibres themselves, so alignment is also a big challenge.

Rather than trying to merge flat chips with round optical fibres, the team of scientists used high-pressure chemistry techniques to deposit semiconducting materials layer by layer directly into tiny holes in optical fibres. This bypasses the need to integrate fibre-optics onto a chip, and means that the data signal never has to leave the fibre.

"The big breakthrough here is that we don't need the whole chip as part of the finished product. We have managed to build the junction – the active boundary where all the electronic action takes place – right into the fibre,” said Dr Pier Sazio, senior research fellow in the University of Southampton's Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC).

“Moreover, while conventional chip fabrication requires multimillion dollar clean room facilities, our process can be performed with simple equipment that costs much less.”

ORC believes that this could be a key enabling technology in the drive for faster, lower cost, and more energy efficient communication networks. It also has many potential non-telecommunications applications, and the team is investigating new approaches to fabricating semiconductor junctions.

The University of Southampton and Penn State University will publish their findings in the journal Nature Photonics this month.

A number of universities are looking at techniques to speed up communications across fibre optic networks. In May 2011, scientists at the University of California announced they had developed a graphene modulator that could increase the rate of data transfer over fibre optic networks tenfold.

Meanwhile, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced in Novemebr that they had developed photonic chips that use light beams rather than electrons. The arrival of photonic computers could help speed traffic across fibre optic networks by eliminating a conversion process, the researchers said.