Posted in | Fibre Optics

Could This 3D Printing Method Make Fiber Optics Cheaper?

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Optical fibers form an integral part of the global infrastructure as they enable today’s high-speed internet technology, without which everyday communications, business, and commercial markets would be reduced to a much slower pace.

However, the fabrication of optical fibers is an expensive, rigid, and labor-intensive process because of the increased labor and training costs for the ultra-precise work. Now, a new technique that uses 3D printing technology has the potential to refashion the conventional manufacturing of optical fibers and lead to new design applications for the future, as well as reducing costs overall.

Developed by a team of researchers led by John Canning at the University of Technology, Sydney, the technique relieves some of the complex geometry requirements and produces a preform from optical silica that can be easily drawn into fibers. Canning and his Sydney-based team collaborated and utilized the skills of colleagues from the University of New South Wales as well as Harbin Engineering University and Yanshan University in China. Their full research was recently published in the journal Optics Letters.

“Making silica optical fiber involves the labor-intensive process of spinning tubes on a lathe, which requires the fiber’s core or cores to be precisely centered,” said Canning. “With additive manufacturing, there’s no need for the fiber geometry to be centered. This removes one of the greatest limitations in fiber design and greatly reduces the cost of fiber manufacturing,” he added.

The new technique and research for the 3D printing builds upon previous work which uses a polymer material to draw the fibers from a 3D printed preform. Yet, this work was limited by the fact a truly innovative method was called for to overcome the obstacle of producing temperatures in excess of 1900oC to 3D print glass. Therefore, the team decided to put to work a commercially accessible light projection 3D printer which is conventionally used to polymerize photoreactive monomers.

Thanks to a novel combination of materials and nanoparticle integration, we have shown it’s possible to 3D print a silica preform.

John Canning, The University of Technology, Sydney

By feeding the commercial 3D printer a series of silica nanoparticles into the monomers at loads greater than 50 percent by weight, the team pioneered the new unique process to create a silica glass structure. Accordingly, Canning and his team designed a 3D-printed cylindrical form and performed a heating step to remove the binding agent. Then, by further increasing the temperature removed the polymer and allowed the silica nanoparticles to fuse together and produce the solid structure. This could then be heated and pulled in a draw tower to create optical fibers. While the technique did produce fibers that indicate light-loss characteristics, the team was quickly able to identify the cause and set about finding solutions to counter this issue.

With further improvements to limit the light losses, this new approach could potentially replace the conventional lathe-based method of making silica optical fibers. This would not only reduce fabrication and material costs but also lower labor costs because training and hazards are reduced.

John Canning, The University of Technology, Sydney

The next step for Canning and his team is to establish a relationship with a commercial fiber optic fabrication company in order to finetune and move the technology up to an industrial scale. “The new technique worked surprisingly well and can be applied to a range of glass material processing to improve other types of optical components,” stated Canning.

By implementing their breakthrough fabrication technique on a commercial scale, the team believes that manufacturing costs would be drastically lowered as materials and production costs are reduced. What’s more is that some of the labor costs are removed because some of the “training and the danger factors” production workers face are cut down, said Canning.

The long-term goal of the project is to continually drive the research in the field and introduce new designs for cutting-edge applications in areas of development regarding communications, sensors, and power transmissions.

David J. Cross, M.A

Written by

David J. Cross, M.A

David is an academic researcher and interdisciplinary artist. David's current research explores how science and technology, particularly the internet and artificial intelligence, can be put into practice to influence a new shift towards utopianism and the reemergent theory of the commons.

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