The future of communications could lie in magnets and liquid crystals with properties modified by light, according to a discovery made by researchers at the Australian National University (ANU).
A team at the ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering (RSPE) was able to use a magnetic field to stimulate nematic liquid crystals (NLCs) and control the angular steering of light beams carrying data.
"Through reorientation, the molecular distribution of NLCs can be modified by the electric field of light, permitting functional operations and supporting self-localized light beams or spatial optical solitons," it states in a research paper published in Nature Communications.
This new data processing method promises to be "smaller, cheaper and more agile than fibre optics", according to ANU.
Existing communication technologies require the ability to precisely direct information channels and use electronic components for signal processing such as switching, which is not as fast as light-based technology including fibre optics.
Co-researcher Dr Vladlen Shvedov from RSPE said the team's "touch-free magneto-optical system" has the flexibility to remotely transfer a tiny optical signal in any direction in real-time.
"In the liquid crystal the light creates a temporary channel to guide itself along, called a soliton, which is about one-tenth the diameter of a human hair. That's about 25 times thinner than fibre optics," added co-researcher Dr Yana Izdebskaya.
"Developing efficient strategies to achieve the robust control and steering of solitons is one of the major challenges in light-based technologies."
Izdebskaya said that controlling solitons in liquid crystals had only been achieved by applying voltage from inflexible electrodes.
"Such systems have been restricted by the configuration of electrodes in a thin liquid crystal layer. Our new approach doesn't have this limitation and opens a way to full 3D manipulations of light signals carried by solitons," Izdebskaya said.
Professor Wieslaw Krolikowski, who leads the research group, said the technology will likely be applicable in sensors, data storage, and liquid crystal displays.
"Our discovery could lead to communications technology that could power a new generation of efficient devices such as compact and fast optical switches, routers and modulators," Krolikowski said.