Institute of Communications and Connected Systems


ONG Lecturer to accelerate impact of research for the scalability of data centres

27 April 2021

Dr Zhixin Liu, Lecturer in UCL's Optical Networks Group has received funding to develop a frequency comb prototype that will radically enhance the scalability of data centres.

data centre with server racks lining a long corridor, surround by graphs with arrows trending upwards

Author: Ruth Milne, Transnet Communications Manager

Future Data Centres | Optical Communications | Technology Innovation

Dr Zhixin Liu, lecturer in optical communications and networks from UCL's Optical Networks Group, has recently received funding from the EPSRC Impact Acceleration Award (IAA) scheme to develop a frequency comb prototype that will radically enhance the scalability of data centres.

Data centres, containing thousands of computer servers interconnected by a web of optical fibres, are fundamental to a data-driven society, supporting services such as video streaming, cloud storage, big data analytics and machine learning.

Our demand for data is relentless and new technologies are essential if data centres are to keep up. Simply adding more servers only increases the already large footprint of data centres, making them more expensive and less energy efficient to run. 

The new funding will look to address this problem by progressing research undertaken by Dr Zhixin Liu at UCL. To solve the problem of scalability, Zhixin has developed a novel technique that replaces the laser arrays in optical transceivers – devices that convert digital bits to optical signals – with a high-performance frequency comb source.

Conventional optical transceivers have a large number of lasers that provide the light source for optical fibre transmission, and each laser requires a laser driver and temperature controller. With a frequency comb, only one driver and temperature controller are needed because a multi-wavelength source is generated from a single device.

Partnering with Verizon and Microsoft, Zhixin will use the EPSRC IAA funding to accelerate his previous research towards a marketable product, producing a prototype frequency comb and exploring its commercial opportunities directly with end-users.

The new technology has the potential to radically enhance the scalability and energy efficiency of data centres, enabling them to sustain our ever-increasing data demands.  

Dr Zhixin Liu said: 

"Frequency comb has long been considered a promising light source for optical transceivers but has not been commercialised in optical communication systems before due to practical limitations such as temperature and power stability. We resolve these problems with our unique technologies and aim to translate our research to commercial product."

The project runs from April 2021 for 12 months, and brings together research outputs from the TRANSNET Programme, the Optics for the Cloud Alliance and Zhixin’s EPSRC New Investigator Award: PhotoDAC. 

The EPSRC IAA funding scheme is designed for UCL researchers to maximise their discoveries by working with non-academic partners.