Optical fiber

An optical fiber (or fibre) is a glass or plastic fiber that carries light along its length. Fiber optics is the overlap of applied science and engineering concerned with the design and application of optical fibers. Optical fibers are widely used in fiber-optic communications, which permits transmission over longer distances and at higher bandwidths (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 also immune to electromagnetic interference. Fibers are also used for illumination, and are wrapped in bundles so they can be used to carry images, thus allowing viewing in tight spaces. Specially designed fibers are used for a variety of other applications, including sensors and fiber lasers.

Light is kept in the core of the optical fiber by total internal reflection. This causes the fiber to act as a waveguide. Fibers which support many propagation paths or transverse modes are called multi-mode fibers (MMF), while those which can only support a single mode are called single-mode fibers (SMF). Multi-mode fibers generally have a larger core diameter, and are used for short-distance communication links and for applications where high power must be transmitted. Single-mode fibers are used for most communication links longer than 550 meters (1,800 ft).

Joining lengths of optical fiber 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.


Fibre optics, though used extensively in the modern world, is a fairly simple and old technology. Guiding of light by refraction, the principle that makes fiber optics possible, was first demonstrated by Daniel Colladon and Jacques Babinet in Paris in the early 1840s. John Tyndall included a demonstration of it in his public lectures in London a dozen years later.[1] Tyndall also wrote about the property of total internal reflection in an introductory book about the nature of light in 1870: “When the light passes from air into water, the refracted ray is bent towards the perpendicular… When the ray passes from water to air it is bent from the perpendicular… If the angle which the ray in water encloses with the perpendicular to the surface be greater than 48 degrees, the ray will not quit the water at all: it will be totally reflected at the surface…. The angle which marks the limit where total reflection begins is called the limiting angle of the medium. For water this angle is 48°27′, for flint glass it is 38°41′, while for diamond it is 23°42′.”[2][3]

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. Modern optical fibers, where the glass fiber is coated with a transparent cladding to offer a more suitable refractive index, appeared later in the decade.[1] Development then focused on fiber bundles for image transmission. The first fiber 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 uses of optic fibers for communication purposes were first carried out in Western Europe about one or two centuries ago, such as they were used to diagnose patient’s stomach by doctor, and those communications within short ranges. Especially, the transfer of images by optical fibers was largely popularized at the beginning of 21st century, due to the growing medical and television demands.[4]

It is said that, Jun-ichi Nishizawa, a Japanese scientist at Tohoku University, also proposed the use of optical fibers for communications, in 1963, as stated in his own book published in 2004 in India.[5] Nishizawa invented other technologies that contributed to the development of optical fiber communications as well.[6] Nishizawa later invented the graded-index optical fiber as a channel for transmitting light from semiconductor lasers.[7]

The groundbreaking event happened in around 1965, Charles K. Kao and George A. Hockham of the British company Standard Telephones and Cables (STC) were the first to promote the idea that the attenuation in optical fibers could be reduced below 20 decibels per kilometer (dB/km), allowing fibers to be a practical medium for communication.[8] They proposed that the attenuation in fibers available at the time was caused by impurities, which could be removed, rather than fundamental physical effects such as scattering. It’s the first time to correctly and systematically theorize the light-loss properties for optical fiber and its communications, and pointed out the right material to manufacture such fibers – the silica glass with high purity. This discovery led to Kao being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009.[9]

The crucial attenuation level of 20 dB/km 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 Incorporated. They demonstrated a fiber with 17 dB/km attenuation by doping silica glass with titanium. A few years later they produced a fiber with only 4 dB/km attenuation using germanium dioxide as the core dopant. Such low attenuations ushered in optical fiber telecommunications and enabled the Internet. In 1981, General Electric produced fused quartz ingots that could be drawn into fiber optic strands 25 miles (40 km) long.[10]

Attenuations in modern optical cables are far less than those in electrical copper cables, leading to long-haul fiber connections with repeater distances of 70–150 kilometers (43–93 mi). The erbium-doped fiber amplifier, which reduced the cost of long-distance fiber systems by reducing or even in many cases eliminating the need for optical-electrical-optical repeaters, was co-developed by teams led by David N. Payne of the University of Southampton, and Emmanuel Desurvire at Bell Labs in 1986. The more robust optical fiber 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 of Schott Glass in Germany.[11]

In 1991, the emerging field of photonic crystals led to the development of photonic-crystal fiber[12] 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 2000.[13] Photonic crystal fibers can be designed to carry higher power than conventional fiber, and their wavelength dependent properties can be manipulated to improve their performance in certain applications.


Optical fiber 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 fiber with little attenuation compared to electrical cables. This allows long distances to be spanned with few repeaters. Additionally, the per-channel light signals propagating in the fiber can be modulated at rates as high as 111 gigabits per second,[14] although 10 or 40 Gb/s is typical in deployed systems.[15][16] Each fiber can carry many independent channels, each using a different wavelength of light (wavelength-division multiplexing (WDM)). The net data rate (data rate without overhead bytes) per fiber is the per-channel data rate reduced by the FEC overhead, multiplied by the number of channels (usually up to eighty in commercial dense WDM systems as of 2008[update]). The current laboratory fiber optic data rate record, held by Bell Labs in Villarceaux, France, is multiplexing 155 channels, each carrying 100 Gbps over a 7000 km fiber.[17]

For short distance applications, such as creating a network within an office building, fiber-optic cabling can be used to save space in cable ducts. This is because a single fiber can often carry much more data than many electrical cables, such as Cat-5 Ethernet cabling.[vague] Fiber is also immune to electrical interference; there is no cross-talk between signals in different cables and no pickup of environmental noise. Non-armored fiber cables do not conduct electricity, which makes fiber a good solution for protecting communications equipment located in high voltage environments such as power generation facilities, or metal communication structures prone to lightning strikes. They can also be used in environments where explosive fumes are present, without danger of ignition. Wiretapping is more difficult compared to electrical connections, and there are concentric dual core fibers that are said to be tap-proof.[18]

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 550 m (600 yards), and single-mode fiber 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.

Fiber optic sensors

Fibers have many uses in remote sensing. In some applications, the sensor is itself an optical fiber. In other cases, fiber is used to connect a non-fiberoptic sensor to a measurement system. Depending on the application, fiber may be used because of its small size, or the fact that no electrical power is needed at the remote location, or because many sensors can be multiplexed along the length of a fiber by using different wavelengths of light for each sensor, or by sensing the time delay as light passes along the fiber through each sensor. Time delay can be determined using a device such as an optical time-domain reflectometer.

Optical fibers can be used as sensors to measure strain, temperature, pressure and other quantities by modifying a fiber so that the quantity to be measured modulates the intensity, phase, polarization, wavelength or transit time of light in the fiber. Sensors that vary the intensity of light are the simplest, since only a simple source and detector are required. A particularly useful feature of such fiber optic sensors is that they can, if required, provide distributed sensing over distances of up to one meter.

Extrinsic fiber optic sensors use an optical fiber cable, normally a multi-mode one, to transmit modulated light from either a non-fiber optical sensor, or an electronic sensor connected to an optical transmitter. A major benefit of extrinsic sensors is their ability to reach places which are otherwise inaccessible. An example is the measurement of temperature inside aircraft jet engines by using a fiber to transmit radiation into a radiation pyrometer located outside the engine. Extrinsic sensors can also be used in the same way to measure the internal temperature of electrical transformers, where the extreme electromagnetic fields present make other measurement techniques impossible. Extrinsic sensors are used to measure vibration, rotation, displacement, velocity, acceleration, torque, and twisting.


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