This week was a busy week for the fiber optic industry with the annual Optical Fiber Communication conference in San Diego and the European Fiber-To-The-Home conference in Paris. A few announcements amazed me. In San Diego, Alcatel-Lucent demonstrated it can pack 16.4 Tbps of information over more than 2000 kilometers (16.4 Tera bits per second or more than 250 millions of phone calls) in a single strand of fiber. In Paris, a couple of alternative Telecom operators are offering FTTH triple-play service (Internet data, voice and video) at 30 euros per month with data rate up to 100 Mbps; that is 200 times faster than what was available 10 years ago!
When I started to look at energy technologies, one thing struck me: improvements are measured in single digit percentages. For instance, when a solar company improves energy conversion rate by a couple of percents, it is a market-breaking result! Slow improvements seem to be characteristic of energy production. But it is time we use technology innovation and put the best minds to work in order to improve energy efficiency across the board. It is possible. One example: first experiments in emitting diodes started in early nineties with very small efficiency. Fifteen years later, semiconductor lights are surpassing incandescent lights thanks to improvements typical of the semiconductor industry (performance doubling roughly every 2 years aka. as Moore’s law).
But it is fair to say that performance increase cannot always go hand-to-hand with energy efficiency. If we continue to take the semiconductor analogy, Moore’s law is possible thanks to the ability to integrate more and more transistors and reduce the resolution of printed circuit boards. This comes with a cost though: power consumption. As distances get finer, power dissipation increases too. This explains why personal computers feel hotter on our laps, or why servers require fancier cooling systems. Heat dissipation is a real problem in today’s processors. Actually, if we continue to increase integrated circuit speed, their power density would reach the mark of a nuclear reactor within 10 years.
In contrast, fiber optics is a very “green” technology compared to semiconductor electronics. When you look at it more closely, it dissipates a lot less energy than copper based cables and it saves a lot of materials: one single strand of glass can carry as much data as many thousands of copper cables, and it can do over a longer distance without using electronic equipment to regenerate it. The oceans for example are a lot less crowded with more efficient fiber-optic submarine cables while supporting an ever growing need for international communications.