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Optical fibre

Related subjects Engineering; Physics

Optical fibers
Optical fibers

An optical fibre (or fibre) is a glass or plastic fibre that carries light along its length. Fibre optics is the overlap of applied science and engineering concerned with the design and application of optical fibers. Optical fibers are widely used in fibre-optic communication, which permits transmission over longer distances and at higher data rates than other forms of communications. Fibers are used instead of metal wires because signals travel along them with less loss, and they are immune to electromagnetic interference. Optical fibers are also used to form sensors, and in a variety of other applications.

Light is kept in the "core" of the optical fibre by total internal reflection. This causes the fibre to act as a waveguide. Fibers which support many propagation paths or transverse modes are called multimode fibers (MMF). Fibers which support only a single mode are called singlemode fibers (SMF). Multimode fibers generally have a large-diameter core, and are used for short-distance communication links or for applications where high power must be transmitted. Singlemode fibers are used for most communication links longer than 200 meters.

Joining lengths of optical fibre is more complex than joining electrical wire or cable. The ends of the fibers must be carefully cleaved, and then spliced together either mechanically or by fusing them together with an electric arc. Special connectors are used to make removable connections.


Guiding of light by refraction, the principle that makes fibre optics possible, was first demonstrated by Daniel Colladon and Jacques Babinet in Paris in the 1840s, with Irish inventor John Tyndall offering public displays using water-fountains ten years later. Practical applications, such as close internal illumination during dentistry, appeared early in the twentieth century. Image transmission through tubes was demonstrated independently by the radio experimenter Clarence Hansell and the television pioneer John Logie Baird in the 1920s. The principle was first used for internal medical examinations by Heinrich Lamm in the following decade. In 1952, physicist Narinder Singh Kapany conducted experiments that led to the invention of optical fiber, based on Tyndall's earlier studies; modern optical fibers, where the glass fibre is coated with a transparent cladding to offer a more suitable refractive index, appeared later in the decade. Development then focused on fiber bundles for image transmission. The first fibre optic semi-flexible gastroscope was patented by Basil Hirschowitz, C. Wilbur Peters, and Lawrence E. Curtiss, researchers at the University of Michigan, in 1956. In the process of developing the gastroscope, Curtiss produced the first glass-clad fibers; previous optical fibers had relied on air or impractical oils and waxes as the low-index cladding material. A variety of other image transmission applications soon followed. The advent of ultrapure silicon for semiconductor devices made low-loss silica fibre practical.

In 1965, Charles K. Kao and George A. Hockham of the British company Standard Telephones and Cables were the first to suggest that attenuation of contemporary fibers was caused by impurities, which could be removed, rather than fundamental physical effects such as scattering. They speculated that optical fibre could be a practical medium for communication, if the attenuation could be reduced below 20 dB per kilometer. This attenuation level was first achieved in 1970, by researchers Robert D. Maurer, Donald Keck, Peter C. Schultz, and Frank Zimar working for American glass maker Corning Glass Works, now Corning Inc. They demonstrated a fibre with 17 dB optic attenuation per kilometer by doping silica glass with titanium. A few years later they produced a fibre with only 4 dB/km using germanium oxide as the core dopant. Such low attenuations ushered in optical fiber telecommunications and enabled the Internet. Nowadays, attenuations in optical cables are far less than those in electrical copper cables, leading to long-haul fibre connections with repeater distances of 500–800 km.

The erbium-doped fibre amplifier, which reduced the cost of long-distance fibre systems by reducing or even in many cases eliminating the need for optical-electrical-optical repeaters, was co-developed by teams led by David Payne of the University of Southampton, and Emmanuel Desurvire at Bell Laboratories in 1986. The more robust optical fibre commonly used today utilizes glass for both core and sheath and is therefore less prone to aging processes. It was invented by Gerhard Bernsee in 1973 by Schott Glass in Germany.

In 1991, the emerging field of photonic crystals led to the development of photonic crystal fibre (Science (2003), vol 299, page 358), which guides light by means of diffraction from a periodic structure, rather than total internal reflection. The first photonic crystal fibers became commercially available in 1996. Photonic crystal fibers can be designed to carry higher power than conventional fibre, and their wavelength dependent properties can be manipulated to improve their performance in certain applications.


Optical fibre communication

Optical fibre can be used as a medium for telecommunication and networking because it is flexible and can be bundled as cables. It is especially advantageous for long-distance communications, because light propagates through the fibre with little attenuation compared to electrical cables. This allows long distances to be spanned with few repeaters. Additionally, the light signals propagating in the fibre can be modulated at rates as high as 40 Gb/s , and each fibre can carry many independent channels, each by a different wavelength of light ( wavelength-division multiplexing). Over short distances, such as networking within a building, fiber saves space in cable ducts because a single fiber can carry much more data than a single electrical cable. Fibre is also immune to electrical interference, which prevents cross-talk between signals in different cables and pickup of environmental noise. Also, wiretapping is more difficult compared to electrical connections, and there are concentric dual core fibers that are said to be tap-proof. Because they are non-electrical, fibre cables can bridge very high electrical potential differences and can be used in environments where explosive fumes are present, without danger of ignition.

Although fibers can be made out of transparent plastic, glass, or a combination of the two, the fibers used in long-distance telecommunications applications are always glass, because of the lower optical attenuation. Both multi-mode and single-mode fibers are used in communications, with multi-mode fiber used mostly for short distances (up to 500 m), and single-mode fibre used for longer distance links. Because of the tighter tolerances required to couple light into and between single-mode fibers (core diameter about 10 micrometers), single-mode transmitters, receivers, amplifiers and other components are generally more expensive than multi-mode components.

Fibre optic sensors

Optical fibers can be used as sensors to measure strain, temperature, pressure and other parameters. The small size and the fact that no electrical power is needed at the remote location gives the fibre optic sensor an advantage over a conventional electrical sensor in certain applications.

Optical fibers are used as hydrophones for seismic or SONAR applications. Hydrophone systems with more than 100 sensors per fibre cable have been developed. Hydrophone sensor systems are used by the oil industry as well as a few countries' navies. Both bottom mounted hydrophone arrays and towed streamer systems are in use. The German company Sennheiser developed a microphone working with a laser and optical fibers.

Optical fiber sensors for temperature and pressure have been developed for downhole measurement in oil wells. The fibre optic sensor is well suited for this environment as it is functioning at temperatures too high for semiconductor sensors ( Distributed Temperature Sensing).

Another use of the optical fibre as a sensor is the optical gyroscope which is in use in the Boeing 767 and in some car models (for navigation purposes) and the use in Hydrogen microsensors.

Fibre-optic sensors have been developed to measure co-located temperature and strain simultaneously with very high accuracy. This is particularly useful when acquiring information from small complex structures.

Other uses of optical fibers

A frisbee illuminated by fiber optics
A frisbee illuminated by fibre optics

Fibers are widely used in illumination applications. They are used as light guides in medical and other applications where bright light needs to be shone on a target without a clear line-of-sight path. In some buildings, optical fibers are used to route sunlight from the roof to other parts of the building (see non-imaging optics). Optical fibre illumination is also used for decorative applications, including signs, art, and artificial Christmas trees. Swarovski boutiques use optical fibers to illuminate their crystal showcases from many different angles while only employing one light source. Optical fibre is an intrinsic part of the light-transmitting concrete building product, LiTraCon.

A fiber-optic Christmas Tree
A fibre-optic Christmas Tree

Optical fibre is also used in imaging optics. A coherent bundle of fibers is used, sometimes along with lenses, for a long, thin imaging device called an endoscope, which is used to view objects through a small hole. Medical endoscopes are used for minimally invasive exploratory or surgical procedures ( endoscopy). Industrial endoscopes (see fiberscope or borescope) are used for inspecting anything hard to reach, such as jet engine interiors.

An optical fibre doped with certain rare-earth elements such as erbium can be used as the gain medium of a laser or optical amplifier. Rare-earth doped optical fibers can be used to provide signal amplification by splicing a short section of doped fiber into a regular (undoped) optical fiber line. The doped fibre is optically pumped with a second laser wavelength that is coupled into the line in addition to the signal wave. Both wavelengths of light are transmitted through the doped fibre, which transfers energy from the second pump wavelength to the signal wave. The process that causes the amplification is stimulated emission.

Optical fibers doped with a wavelength shifter are used to collect scintillation light in physics experiments.

Optical fibre can be used to supply a low level of power (around one watt) to electronics situated in a difficult electrical environment. Examples of this are electronics in high-powered antenna elements and measurement devices used in high voltage transmission equipment.

Optical fibers are also used in fibre optic gyroscopes, and other interferometry instruments.

Principle of operation

An optical fibre is a cylindrical dielectric waveguide that transmits light along its axis, by the process of total internal reflection. The fibre consists of a core surrounded by a cladding layer. To confine the optical signal in the core, the refractive index of the core must be greater than that of the cladding. The boundary between the core and cladding may either be abrupt, in step-index fibre, or gradual, in graded-index fibre.

Multimode fibre

The propagation of light through a multi-mode optical fiber.
The propagation of light through a multi-mode optical fibre.

Fibre with large (greater than 10  μm) core diameter may be analyzed by geometric optics. Such fibre is called multimode fibre, from the electromagnetic analysis (see below). In a step-index multimode fibre, rays of light are guided along the fibre core by total internal reflection. Rays that meet the core-cladding boundary at a high angle (measured relative to a line normal to the boundary), greater than the critical angle for this boundary, are completely reflected. The critical angle (minimum angle for total internal reflection) is determined by the difference in index of refraction between the core and cladding materials. Rays that meet the boundary at a low angle are refracted from the core into the cladding, and do not convey light and hence information along the fibre. The critical angle determines the acceptance angle of the fibre, often reported as a numerical aperture. A high numerical aperture allows light to propagate down the fiber in rays both close to the axis and at various angles, allowing efficient coupling of light into the fibre. However, this high numerical aperture increases the amount of dispersion as rays at different angles have different path lengths and therefore take different times to traverse the fibre. A low numerical aperture may therefore be desirable.

Optical fiber types.
Optical fibre types.

In graded-index fiber, the index of refraction in the core decreases continuously between the axis and the cladding. This causes light rays to bend smoothly as they approach the cladding, rather than reflecting abruptly from the core-cladding boundary. The resulting curved paths reduce multi-path dispersion because high angle rays pass more through the lower-index periphery of the core, rather than the high-index center. The index profile is chosen to minimize the difference in axial propagation speeds of the various rays in the fibre. This ideal index profile is very close to a parabolic relationship between the index and the distance from the axis.

Singlemode fibre

A typical single-mode optical fiber, showing diameters of the component layers.
A typical single-mode optical fibre, showing diameters of the component layers.

Fibre with a core diameter less than about ten times the wavelength of the propagating light cannot be modeled using geometric optics. Instead, it must be analyzed as an electromagnetic structure, by solution of Maxwell's equations as reduced to the electromagnetic wave equation. The electromagnetic analysis may also be required to understand behaviors such as speckle that occur when coherent light propagates in multi-mode fiber. As an optical waveguide, the fibre supports one or more confined transverse modes by which light can propagate along the fiber. Fibre supporting only one mode is called single-mode or mono-mode fiber. The behavior of larger-core multimode fiber can also be modeled using the wave equation, which shows that such fiber supports more than one mode of propagation (hence the name). The results of such modeling of multi-mode fiber approximately agree with the predictions of geometric optics, if the fibre core is large enough to support more than a few modes.

The waveguide analysis shows that the light energy in the fibre is not completely confined in the core. Instead, especially in single-mode fibers, a significant fraction of the energy in the bound mode travels in the cladding as an evanescent wave.

The most common type of single-mode fibre has a core diameter of 8 to 10 μm and is designed for use in the near infrared. The mode structure depends on the wavelength of the light used, so that this fiber actually supports a small number of additional modes at visible wavelengths. Multi-mode fibre, by comparison, is manufactured with core diameters as small as 50 micrometres and as large as hundreds of micrometres.

Special-purpose fibre

Some special-purpose optical fibre is constructed with a non-cylindrical core and/or cladding layer, usually with an elliptical or rectangular cross-section. These include polarization-maintaining fibre and fibre designed to suppress whispering gallery mode propagation.

Photonic crystal fibre is made with a regular pattern of index variation (often in the form of cylindrical holes that run along the length of the fiber). Such fibre uses diffraction effects instead of or in addition to total internal reflection, to confine light to the fiber's core. The properties of the fibre can be tailored to a wide variety of applications.



Glass optical fibers are almost always made from silica, but some other materials, such as fluorozirconate, fluoroaluminate, and chalcogenide glasses, are used for longer-wavelength infrared applications. Like other glasses, these glasses have a refractive index of about 1.5. Typically the difference between core and cladding is less than one percent.

Plastic optical fibers (POF) are commonly step-index multimode fibers with a core diameter of 0.5 mm or larger. POF typically have higher attenuation co-efficients than glass fibers, 1 dB/m or higher, and this high attenuation limits the range of POF-based systems.


Standard optical fibers are made by first constructing a large-diameter preform, with a carefully controlled refractive index profile, and then pulling the preform to form the long, thin optical fibre. The preform is commonly made by three chemical vapor deposition methods: inside vapor deposition, outside vapor deposition, and vapor axial deposition.

With inside vapor deposition, a hollow glass tube approximately 40 cm in length known as a "preform" is placed horizontally and rotated slowly on a lathe, and gases such as silicon tetrachloride (SiCl4) or germanium tetrachloride (GeCl4) are injected with oxygen in the end of the tube. The gases are then heated by means of an external hydrogen burner, bringing the temperature of the gas up to 1900 kelvins, where the tetrachlorides react with oxygen to produce silica or germania ( germanium oxide) particles. When the reaction conditions are chosen to allow this reaction to occur in the gas phase throughout the tube volume, in contrast to earlier techniques where the reaction occurred only on the glass surface, this technique is called modified chemical vapor deposition.

The oxide particles then agglomerate to form large particle chains, which subsequently deposit on the walls of the tube as soot. The deposition is due to the large difference in temperature between the gas core and the wall causing the gas to push the particles outwards (this is known as thermophoresis). The torch is then traversed up and down the length of the tube to deposit the material evenly. After the torch has reached the end of the tube, it is then brought back to the beginning of the tube and the deposited particles are then melted to form a solid layer. This process is repeated until a sufficient amount of material has been deposited. For each layer the composition can be modified by varying the gas composition, resulting in precise control of the finished fibre's optical properties.

In outside vapor deposition or vapor axial deposition, the glass is formed by flame hydrolysis, a reaction in which silicon tetrachloride and germanium tetrachloride are oxidized by reaction with water (H2O) in an oxyhydrogen flame. In outside vapor deposition the glass is deposited onto a solid rod, which is removed before further processing. In vapor axial deposition, a short seed rod is used, and a porous preform, whose length is not limited by the size of the source rod, is built up on its end. The porous preform is consolidated into a transparent, solid preform by heating to about 1800 kelvins.

The preform, however constructed, is then placed in a device known as a drawing tower, where the preform tip is heated and the optic fiber is pulled out as a string. By measuring the resultant fiber width, the tension on the fiber can be controlled to maintain the fibre thickness.

Practical issues

Optical fibre cables

In practical fibers, the cladding is usually coated with a tough resin buffer layer, which may be further surrounded by a jacket layer, usually plastic. These layers add strength to the fiber but do not contribute to its optical wave guide properties. Rigid fiber assemblies sometimes put light-absorbing ("dark") glass between the fibers, to prevent light that leaks out of one fibre from entering another. This reduces cross-talk between the fibers, or reduces flare in fibre bundle imaging applications.

Modern cables come in a wide variety of sheathings and armor, designed for applications such as direct burial in trenches, dual use as power lines , installation in conduit, lashing to aerial telephone poles, submarine installation, or insertion in paved streets. In recent years the cost of small fibre-count pole-mounted cables has greatly decreased due to the high Japanese and South Korean demand for fibre to the home (FTTH) installations.

Fiber cable can be very flexible, but traditional fiber's loss increases greatly if the fibre is bent with a radius smaller than around 30 mm. This creates a problem when the cable is bent around corners or wound around a spool, making FTTX installations more complicated. "Bendable fibers", targeted towards easier installation in home environments, have been standardized as ITU-T G.657. This type of fibre can be bent with a radius as low as 7.5 mm without adverse impact. Even more bendable fibers have been developed. Bendable fiber may also be resistant to fiber hacking, in which the signal in a fiber is surreptitiously monitored by bending the fibre and detecting the leakage.

Termination and splicing

ST fiber connector on multimode fiber
ST fiber connector on multimode fibre

Optical fibers are connected to terminal equipment by optical fibre connectors. These connectors are usually of a standard type such as FC, SC, ST, LC, or MTRJ.

Optical fibers may be connected to each other by connectors or by splicing, that is, joining two fibers together to form a continuous optical waveguide. The generally accepted splicing method is arc fusion splicing, which melts the fibre ends together with an electric arc. For quicker fastening jobs, a "mechanical splice" is used.

Fusion splicing is done with a specialized instrument that typically operates as follows: The two cable ends are fastened inside a splice enclosure that will protect the splices, and the fibre ends are stripped of their protective polymer coating (as well as the more sturdy outer jacket, if present). The ends are cleaved (cut) with a precision cleaver to make them perpendicular, and are placed into special holders in the splicer. The splice is usually inspected via a magnified viewing screen to check the cleaves before and after the splice. The splicer uses small motors to align the end faces together, and emits a small spark between electrodes at the gap to burn off dust and moisture. Then the splicer generates a larger spark that raises the temperature above the melting point of the glass, fusing the ends together permanently. The location and energy of the spark is carefully controlled so that the molten core and cladding don't mix, and this minimizes optical loss. A splice loss estimate is measured by the splicer, by directing light through the cladding on one side and measuring the light leaking from the cladding on the other side. A splice loss under 0.1 dB is typical. The complexity of this process makes fibre splicing much more difficult than splicing copper wire.

Mechanical fiber splices are designed to be quicker and easier to install, but there is still the need for stripping, careful cleaning and precision cleaving. The fibre ends are aligned and held together by a precision-made sleeve, often using a clear index-matching gel that enhances the transmission of light across the joint. Such joints typically have higher optical loss and are less robust than fusion splices, especially if the gel is used. All splicing techniques involve the use of an enclosure into which the splice is placed for protection afterward.

Fibers are terminated in connectors so that the fiber end is held at the end face precisely and securely. A fiber-optic connector is basically a rigid cylindrical barrel surrounded by a sleeve that holds the barrel in its mating socket. The mating mechanism can be "push and click", "turn and latch" ("bayonet"), or screw-in (threaded). A typical connector is installed by preparing the fiber end and inserting it into the rear of the connector body. Quick-set adhesive is usually used so the fibre is held securely, and a strain relief is secured to the rear. Once the adhesive has set, the fiber's end is polished to a mirror finish. Various polish profiles are used, depending on the type of fiber and the application. For singlemode fiber, the fiber ends are typically polished with a slight curvature, such that when the connectors are mated the fibers touch only at their cores. This is known as a "physical contact" (PC) polish. The curved surface may be polished at an angle, to make an "angled physical contact" (APC) connection. Such connections have higher loss than PC connections, but greatly reduced back reflection, because light that reflects from the angled surface leaks out of the fibre core; the resulting loss in signal strength is known as gap loss. APC fibre ends have low back reflection even when disconnected.

Free-space coupling

It often becomes necessary to align an optical fiber with another optical fibre or an optical device such as a light-emitting diode, a laser diode, or an optoelectronic device such as a modulator. This can involve either carefully aligning the fibre and placing it in contact with the device to which it is to couple, or can use a lens to allow coupling over an air gap. In some cases the end of the fibre is polished into a curved form that is designed to allow it to act as a lens.

In a laboratory environment, the fiber end is usually aligned to the device or other fiber with a fibre launch system that uses a microscope objective lens to focus the light down to a fine point. A precision translation stage (micro-positioning table) is used to move the lens, fibre, or device to allow the coupling efficiency to be optimized.

Fibre fuse

At high optical intensities, above 2 megawatts per square centimetre, when a fibre is subjected to a shock or is otherwise suddenly damaged, a fibre fuse can occur. The reflection from the damage vaporizes the fibre immediately before the break, and this new defect remains reflective so that the damage propagates back toward the transmitter at 1–3 meters per second.,, The open fibre control system, which ensures laser eye safety in the event of a broken fiber, can also effectively halt propagation of the fibre fuse. In situations, such as undersea cables, where high power levels might be used without the need for open fiber control, a "fibre fuse" protection device at the transmitter can break the circuit to prevent any damage.

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