A new fibre-optic technology could increase internet bandwidth capacity by sending data along light beams that twist like a tornado rather than move in a straight line.
The discovery comes as internet data traffic is reaching its limit amid mounting demand for bandwidth by users of smartphones and internet-enabled devices, creating problems for network providers.
The new technology uses optical vortices, which are like doughnut-shaped laser light beams. Also known as orbital angular momentum (OAM) beams, they were thought to be unstable in fibre until now.
An engineering professor at Boston University, Siddharth Ramachandran, found a way to make an optical fibre that can handle them. The technique is described in the US journal Science.
"Our discovery, of design classes in which they are stable, has profound implications for a variety of scientific and technological fields," said Ramachandran.
"Including the use of such beams for enhancing data capacity in fibres."
Researchers showed it was possible to send a huge amount of data through a 1-kilometre fibre, as much as 1.6 terabits per second, or the equivalent of transmitting eight Blu-ray DVDs every second.
Optical communication system expert and co-author Alan Willner at the University of Southern California worked with the fibre, and described it as a "very unique and valuable innovation".
Other collaborators on the project were OFS-Fitel, a fibre optics company in Denmark, and Tel Aviv University.
The research was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).