Efficient as fiber optic cables are at transmitting data in the form of light pulses, they do need to be physically supported, and they can only handle a finite amount of power. Still, what's the alternative ... just send those focused pulses through the air? Actually, that's just what scientists at the University of Maryland have already demonstrated in their lab.

In a traditional optical fiber, light travels along a transparent glass core. That core is surrounded by a cladding material with a lower refractive index than the glass. As a result, when the light tries to spread out (as it would if it were traveling through the air), the cladding reflects it back into the core, thus retaining its focus and intensity.

A team led by Prof. Howard Milchberg has created "air waveguides" that work on the same principle.

To make these waveguides, they start by using four lasers arranged in a square formation (one laser at each corner) to send short, powerful laser pulses through the air. As their beams collapse, they form into narrower beams known as filaments. The reason that these form is because in sufficiently powerful laser light, the light at the center of the beam has a higher refractive index than that at the outside.

Milchberg noted that the filaments heat the air as they pass through it, leaving a tunnel-like "hole" of low-density air in their wake. That air also has a lower refractive index than the surrounding air, so light doesn't travel through it as easily.

After the four filament-making lasers are fired, a fifth laser located in the middle of the square is used to create a spark in the air. The light from that spark travels down the space between the four holes, and is reflected back in by them whenever it starts to disperse.

The air waveguides only last for a matter of milliseconds, although that could still be plenty of time to both send and receive data.

So far, they've only been used to transmit light a distance of about one meter (3.3 ft). When that light reached a detector at the far end, it was found to be 1.5 times stronger than if a waveguide were not used. According to Milchberg, the relative advantage would be much larger over longer distances, in which the light would otherwise become considerably more dispersed.

To that end, he now hopes to use air waveguides to send a light signal over a distance of at least 50 meters (164 ft). Ultimately, he envisions the technology being used to transmit data across long spaces that aren't conducive to the stringing of cables, along with applications such as atmospheric pollution detection, inspection of hazardous locations such as nuclear reactors, and laser weapons.

A paper on his research was recently published in the journal Optica.