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The launch of the Zepler Institute at the University of Southampton means city scientists are leading the way in Internet Technology
MORE than 40 years ago, work done at the University of Southampton was instrumental in pioneering the development of the Internet.
Decades on and the research carried out at the campus is still leading the world in ensuring our access to the information superhighway is secure for years to come.
The ability to get answers to our |questions with simply a tap of a screen is something most of us take for granted. In fact the ability to access the Internet at all when we pick up a smartphone, log on to our computers or pick up a tablet is only possible thanks in large part to the work of the exceptionally clever people who are right on our doorstep.
This week saw the launch of the Zepler Institute, which is being described as the world leader in the field of photonics – the hi-tech field of electronics regarded as the future of communications using light.
At this point you may be thinking this is all very well and good, but how is some of the foremost scientific minds in the world being gathered together in a Southampton laboratory going to affect my life? The answer is in pretty much every way.
The worldwide reliance on the Internet, the explosion of smartphones, fuelled by our need to access information in an instant, has led to an unprecedented demand which simply was not and could not have been predicted when the first optical fibres carried the first packages of information.
The scientific predictions are that we are heading for a “capacity crunch”, in that the fibre optics just aren’t going to be able to cope with the amount of Internet traffic As a result the race is on to find the best way of ensuring the ability of the Internet to keep up with demand, as the fact is that, without this breakthrough, the future of downloading, uploading and communicating via the Web looks uncertain.
Essentially the scientists at the newly formed Zepler Institute have this conundrum at the heart of their work and have several theories currently being tested. And that is what sets it apart from any other business or industry. Due to the sheer depth of expertise – and, let’s not forget, the £120m of state-of-the-art laboratory and testing facilities on hand – Southampton is now at the forefront of developing the science behind the Internet.
What was reduced to smouldering wreckage by a fire seven years ago is now where this ground-breaking work is happening.
Spinning out from the collection of high-tech stainless steel processors inside the futuristic “clean-room” laboratory is the fabric on which the Internet is driven – an optical fibre, no bigger than a few strands of hair but capable of carrying 25 million broadband channels.
The length of specially developed glass-based thread is used in a myriad of industries from space exploration to supermarket scanners, but the challenge for the scientists is developing it further to meet the demands of the future.
In its current form, the optical fibres will simply not be capable of supplying the demand that is on the horizon. Being able to transmit information quickly and reliably is what the future of things like the technological, healthcare and media industry are all depending.
With reliable connections doctors will be able to diagnose and treat patients remotely, for example, media and entertainment can be produced and uploaded from the home, potentially bypassing the need for established broadcasters.
Space exploration via the use of remotely controlled rovers could make vital discoveries into the origins of the universe.
That all starts with the work being done in Southampton under the umbrella of the Zepler Institute.
Named after Professor Eric Zepler, the institute pays tribute to the pioneering contribution he made to radio receiver development, as well as to the teaching of electronics.
Professor Zepler, who died in 1980, also founded what was to be the first electronics department in the country at the University of Southampton, so setting it on its path to become a trailblazer in the field.
For decades, Southampton researchers have enabled the development of the physical hardware through fibre optic technology that laid the foundations of the Internet. Researchers in electronics and computer science at the university are now leading the way in pioneering the new discipline of web science to understand and develop the future uses of the World Wide Web. The Zepler Institute is led by Professor Sir David Payne, director of the university’s internationally renowned Optoelectronics Research Centre, and one of the world’s most referenced and influential researchers.
But this is not just about the kudos of pioneering revolutionary technological developments – this also has a tangible economic benefit for Southampton.
In the words of Sir David: “I see a fundamental part of our work as turning electrons into enterprise.”
Numerous engineering and manufacturing businesses in the region are linked to, provide for or have been started as a result of the work that goes on at on the Southampton campus.
The total UK photonics industry encompasses 1,500 manufacturing companies, employs 70,000 people and generates something like £10.5bn.
Much of that has a connection to Southampton. In the 1960s the University of Southampton began its research into optical communications, work that has been supported by EPSRC for nearly 50 years. The Optoelectronics Research Centre, now part of the Zepler Institute, has now created more than ten successful spin-out companies, more than 500 jobs, has filed 20 patents a year and the quality of its 200-plus annual academic publications mark it as an international leader in research.
In short Southampton is the place to be in the quest to deliver the solutions required to meet the global challenges of the future.
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