We live the age where large amounts of data are being transferred within seconds using Fiber optic Under Sea Cables. These flexible, transparent fiber cables made by drawing glass (silica) or plastic to a diameter slightly thicker than that of a human hair. Even though the cables are extremely thin it can still carry 101 Tbit/s of bandwidth on a single core. Until now these cables are extremely difficult to manufacture as has to be pure optical glass. The Glass used for such cables has to be extremely thin as thicker the glass gets, the less transparent it becomes due to impurities in the glass.
If you thing that finding the right kind of glass was the only issue in making fibre optics, read further. Once the glass is selected a labor intensive “stack and draw” process is used which involves stacking small glass capillaries by hand to create a perform, out of which a piece of glass from which an optical fiber is drawn. This process may be a tested method however it still has lot of limitations which make the fiber less flexible and can only be used in products of certain shapes.
Professor Jayanta Sahu, of the University of Southampton’s Zepler Institute, and Dr. Shoufeng Yang, the Faculty of Engineering and Environment are working on a new process to make 3d printed Fiber Optic cables. Prof. Sahu explains the new technique which uses Multiple Materials Additive Manufacturing, “We will design, fabricate and employ novel Multiple Materials Additive Manufacturing (MMAM) equipment to enable us to make optical fibre preforms (both in conventional and microstructured fibre geometries) in silica and other host glass materials. Our proposed process can be utilised to produce complex preforms, which are otherwise too difficult, too time-consuming or currently impossible to be achieved by existing fabrication techniques.”
The idea behind the all new 3d printed Fiber optic is to replace the “stack and draw” manufacturing process with 3D printing pure glass powder. This slight change in the raw material would allow researchers to make a better flexible fiber optic cable.
The process which Professor Jayanta Sahu proposes is certainly revolutionary however it has many obstacles to overcome. Matthew Peach, at Optics.org, points out, “There are numerous challenges including the high melting temperature of the glass (over 2000?C in case of silica); the need for precise control of dopants, refractive index profiles and waveguide geometry; and the need for transitions between the layers to be smooth, otherwise the properties of the resultant fibre will be altered.”
The team behind the 3d printed Fiber optics is still very optimistic that they will be able to make it, and there are many who have already started investing into their dreams. Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has already funded $1.1 Million to fund the project. There are many industries that have also offered technical assistance to make this project a grand success.
Professor Sahu added "We hope our work will open up a route to manufacture novel fibre structures in silica and other glasses for a wide range of applications, covering telecommunications, sensing, lab-in-a-fibre, metamaterial fibre, and high-power lasers. This is something that has never been tried before and we are excited about starting this project."