High pressure manufacturing improves glass for fiber optic cables

Although fiber optic cables have made communication and data transmission even faster than previously possible, it is still subject to physical limitations and data loss. A new study has found a way to reduce signal losses from glass-based fiber optic cables.

Researchers from Penn State in the United States and AGC Inc. in Japan propose that the silica used in the manufacture of these cables be manufactured under high pressure conditions.

(Photo: Photo by William Thomas Cain / Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA – SEPTEMBER 12: Fiber optic cable is seen inside the “multisensory room” at Elwyn Baring Street Center on September 12, 2002, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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Loss of signal in fiber optic cables

“Loss of signal means we have to use amplifiers every 80-100 kilometers (50 to 62 miles),” said John C. Mauro, a professor of engineering and materials science at Penn State in a news release. He adds that beyond that distance, the signals are no longer “detected correctly”, which becomes a significant problem across continents and oceans.

The inevitable signal losses in glass fibers are due to Rayleigh scattering, light scattering and other forms of electromagnetic radiation, due to imperfection in the atomic structure of the medium. Mauro notes the random presence of open porosities, or gaps, on the atomic scale. The strands used in the construction of fiber optic cables come from very high purity silica glass.

“Historically, the biggest breakthrough was the discovery that led to the original optical fiber: how to get rid of water in glass,” added Mauro, noting the presence of water. It absorbs the signal, especially those below the frequencies commonly used for telecommunications. But with a specialized technique based on chemical vapor deposition, water can be removed from the silica fibers.

Existing techniques for manufacturing fiber optic cables are performed in close proximity to ambient pressure conditions.

Investigate the effects of pressure on the production process

The researchers conducted molecular simulations to study the effects of pressure in the manufacturing process, with the results of their study reported in the journal NPJ Computational Materials. According to the simulation, more than half of the Rayleigh diffusion losses could be reduced by pressure quenching the glass.

The report explains that applying additional pressure to the material makes it less heterogeneous. It also reduces empty spaces on the atomic scale, making the material more homogeneous and less porous.

While the Penn State team worked on simulating the pressure increase on the glass, Madoka Ono conducted the actual tests on the silica glass batches and found that the results confirmed the simulation. Ono is affiliated with the materials integration laboratories of AGC Inc and is an associate professor at the Research Institute for Electronic Science at the University of Hokkaido.

Mauro said in the Penn State statement that the optimal pressure was about four gigapascals (GPa). However, it is not a simple improvement to the optical fiber manufacturing process. To produce under these extreme pressures, glass would have to be formed and cooled under pressure during its glass transition phase, when glass is between its solid and liquid phases and appears as a viscous material. It would require a specialized chamber capable of holding 40,000 atmospheres of pressure.

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