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Brit boffins GANG-RESEARCH tiny LEDs for 1Gbps network

Itsy bitsy teenie weenie LEDs to go all beamy

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A consortium of UK universities have banded together to spend some government cash building very small LEDs with a view to creating broadcast networks capable of hitting 1Gbps.

The team, led by the University of Strathclyde and taking contributions from research units at Cambridge, Edinburgh, Oxford and St Andrews, plans to spend four years working out how to manufacturer and utilise micro-sized LEDs which can be bundled together to provide lighting, parallel communication channels, or used as pixels in giant light displays.

It is far from the first time flashing lights have been posited as a broadcast communications medium. The seminal work from Xerox on pads, tabs and screens - 1980s research attempting to predict the future of computing - used flashing infrared repeater hubs to simulate the wireless networks that hadn't been invented at the time.

There's also been much talk of using fluorescent lighting for broadcasting updates to intelligent supermarket shelves, but it turns out that a PFY is cheaper.

LEDs are a natural fit, they already flash very rapidly and the idea has attracted quite bit of interest - but that work is all based in elements a square millimetre in size, while the new team wants to get the size down into the micron space.

Being smaller means flashing faster - about 1,000 times faster according to the team. And by making each LED a subtly different colour, they can all transmit separate data streams, which means 1,000 of them packed into a square millimetre can outperform existing techniques a million times over.

Receiving the signal will, no doubt, be a key area for the project, which is funded with some of the £800m which gets awarded annually by the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The project will last four years, and aspires to make "li-fi" (as the team would have it) routine within a decade.

Li-fi is limited to line of sight, human eyes being sensitive to the same part of the electromagnetic spectrum, but reflections could still be used and fast networking is valuable even without penetration.

It won't be replacing radio networks any time soon, but could easily fill some gaps, and if the worst comes to the worst the team will still have minuscule and multicolour LEDs which could be used to create television screens of any size imaginable. ®

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