The Sydney company whose light-bending switches make the world’s internet faster

PM’s Prizes for Science The Finisair team in Sydney building switches to bend light.
  • Finisar, a Sydney company, was today awarded the $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation.
  • The company builds switches that bend light and through which about half of the world’s internet traffic travels.
  • These optical devices have dramatically improved the capacity and reliability of the internet.

A Sydney company, Finisar, has just won a Prime Minister’s Science Prize for building switches that bend light, which are used in about half of the world’s internet traffic.

The global internet is carried by optical fibres linking continents, countries and cities. The speed and volume of internet traffic had been limited by the need to convert data from light to electrical signals for switching and processing.

The Finisar team created the switches using prisms, liquid crystals and silicon, which dramatically improved the capacity and reliability of the internet.

One switch can handle a million simultaneous high-definition streaming videos. The team is now working on boosting the capacity of their devices further to meet the demands of 5G and the Internet of Things.

The Finisar team — Dr Simon Poole, Andrew Bartos, Dr Glenn Baxter and Dr Steven Frisken — was today awarded the $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation.

The optical device invented in Sydney — Flexgrid Wavelength Selectable Switches — uses high-tech prisms to split light into more than 100 coloured beams and switch them from one optical fibre to another to handle 10 terabits per second.

The patented technology was created by four engineers in Sydney in 2001 who thought they could beat the world’s biggest telecommunications companies and solve a problem that was holding back the growth of the internet.

The founders explain:

“Large companies were spending billions of dollars looking for solutions. The four of us had all worked in optics, and we were looking for something to contribute after the dot-com collapse,” says Simon Poole, Director of New Business Ventures at Finisar.

The device they came up with has three major components: a prism able to divide the light into many different colours; a Liquid Crystal on Silicon chip that can steer the light into different optical fibres; and the algorithms that manage the process.

The company was originally called Engana. Today it is part of Finisar, a Nasdaq-listed company in the US. There are 230 people at the Sydney base, where they design, assemble, sell and support the devices with the aid of teams in China, Korea and America.

All the devices are exported from Australia for integration into systems sold by the world’s telecommunication companies.

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