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3D printed fibre optics makes headway

10 Jul 2015

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Optical fibres make it possible for us to connect to the Internet as well as do long-distance communication. Improving on this technology, University of Southampton researchers are probing a 3D printing method, or additive manufacturing, to fabricate optical fibre. Once successful, this could open up tons of new applications in a wide range of industries such as biotechnology and aerospace.

Current techniques used to produce optical fibre preforms—the piece of glass from which an optical fibre is drawn—give a consistent structure along the length of the preform but make it difficult to control the shape and composition of the fibre in 3D. This limits the degree of flexibility that engineers can exercise in the design of the fibre and as a consequence, the capabilities that the fibres can offer.

The new technique, being developed by Professor Jayanta Sahu, together with his colleagues from the University of Southampton's Zepler Institute and co-investigator Dr Shoufeng Yang from the Faculty of Engineering and Environment, will allow engineers to manufacture preforms with far more complex structures and different features along their lengths.

"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," says Sahu. "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."

Optical fibre

Silica fibre drawing tower

The making of the preform is one of the most challenging stages of optical fibre manufacturing, especially when the preform has a complex internal structure, such as in photonic bandgap fibre—a new type of microstructured fibre, which is hotly anticipated to revolutionise the telecoms and datacoms industries in particular.

Currently, most microstructured fibres are made using the labour intensive 'stack and draw' process, which involves stacking several smaller glass capillaries or canes together by hand to form the preform.

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