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The power of light

- Wits University

Andrew Forbes is a Distinguished Professor in the School of Physics.

The new Structured Light Laboratory, established by Professor Andrew Forbes and his team, is currently researching how to pack information into light, transmit it over distance, and then unpack the information on the other side.

“We do this in both optical fibres and free space, and at the classical and quantum levels,” explains Prof Forbes, who took up his Distinguished Professorship in the Wits School of Physics in March 2015.

“The aim is to increase traditional bandwidth by at least two orders of magnitude (100x) and to improve security between remote sites.”

Forbes and his team will create specific light patterns. Each pattern will, for instance, denote a specific letter in the alphabet.

“It’s essentially sophisticated Morse code,” says Forbes.

When you consider that the diameter of an optical fibre is one-tenth of a human hair, it is not hard to imagine that these goals require input from some of the best minds in physics.

The outcomes of the reasearch would be of interest to the telecoms industry, banks and the military. Light patterning can also be used to image complex structures such as nanostructures for drug delivery.

Forbes has a PhD from the former University of Natal, through the Atomic Energy Corporation, where he worked on South Africa’s biggest laser project at the time: uranium enrichment.   

After obtaining his PhD in 1998, he became a partner in a private sector export laser company called SDI (Scientific Development & Integration).

When the company was sold to an American enterprise in 2005, he joined the CSIR’s National Laser Centre (NLC), where he established a new research area in structured light.

“We published a lot of papers and received a lot of attention for the work,” says Forbes.

He is aiming for immense scientific impact with his team at Wits, which currently includes two postdoctoral fellows, two PhD, one masters and five honours students. He also has a reciprocal student exchange relationship with several universities worldwide.

“My aim is to develop great ideas at the highest level,” he says. “I would also like to patent and license our work for start up companies. This is what Africa needs - to start with good people and excellence in science and then to make an economic impact by leveraging on this.”