Fiber Optic Technology

Fiber-optic communications is based on the principle that light in a glass medium can carry more information over longer distances than electrical signals can carry in a copper or coaxial medium or radio frequencies through a wireless medium. The purity of today’s glass fiber, combined with improved system electronics, enables fiber to transmit digitized light signals hundreds of kilometers without amplification. With few transmission losses, low interference, and high bandwidth potential, optical fiber is an almost ideal transmission medium.

The advantages provided by optical fiber systems are the result of a continuous stream of product innovations and process improvements. As the requirements and emerging opportunities of optical fiber systems are better understood, fiber is improved to address them. This tutorial provides an extensive overview of the history, construction, operation, and benefits of optical fiber, with particular emphasis on outside vapor deposition (OVD) process.

1. From Theory to Practical Application: A Quick History
2. How Fiber Works
3. Outside Vapor Deposition (OVD) Process
4. OVD Benefits
5. Fiber Geometry: A Key Factor in Splicing and System Performance
6. How to Choose Optical Fiber

1. From Theory to Practical Application:
A Quick History
An important principle in physics became the theoretical foundation for optical fiber communications: light in a glass medium can carry more information over longer distances than electrical or radio frequency (RF) signals can carry in a copper, coaxial or wireless medium.

The first challenge undertaken by scientists was to develop a glass so pure that one percent of the light would be retained at the end of one kilometer (km), the existing unrepeatered transmission distance for copper-based telephone systems. In terms of attenuation, this one-percent of light retention translated to 20 decibels per kilometer (dB/km) of glass material.

Glass researchers all over the world worked on the challenge in the 1960s, but the breakthrough came in 1970, when Corning Incorporated scientists Drs. Robert Maurer, Donald Keck, and Peter Schultz created a fiber with a measured attenuation of less than 20 dB per km. It was the purest glass ever made.

The three scientists’ work is recognized as the discovery that led the way to the commercialization of optical fiber technology. Since then, the technology has advanced tremendously in terms of performance, quality, consistency, and applications. Working closely with customers has made it possible for scientists to understand what modifications are required, to improve the product accordingly through design and manufacturing, and to develop industry-wide standards for fiber.

The commitment to optical fiber technology has spanned more than 30 years and continues today with the endeavor to determine how fiber is currently used and how it can meet the challenges of future applications. As a result of research and development efforts to improve fiber, a high level of glass purity has been achieved. Today, fiber’s optical performance is approaching the theoretical limits of silica-based glass materials. This purity, combined with improved system electronics, enables fiber to transmit digitized light signals hundreds of kilometers without amplification. When compared with early attenuation levels of 20 dB per km, today’s achievable levels of less than 0.35 dB per km at 1310 nanometers (nm) and 0.25 dB per km at 1550 nm, testify to the incredible drive for improvement.

2. How Fiber Works
The operation of an optical fiber is based on the principle of total internal reflection. Light reflects (bounces back) or refracts (alters its direction while penetrating a different medium), depending on the angle at which it strikes a surface.

One way of thinking about this concept is to envision a person looking at a lake. By looking down at a steep angle, the person will see fish, rocks, vegetation, or whatever is below the surface of the water (in a somewhat distorted location due to refraction), assuming that the water is relatively clear and calm. However, by casting a glance farther out, thus making the angle of sight less steep, the individual is likely to see a reflection of trees or other objects on an opposite shore. Because air and water have different indices of refraction, the angle at which a person looks into or across the water influences the image seen. This principle is at the heart of how optical fiber works. Controlling the angle at which the light waves are transmitted makes it possible to control how efficiently they reach their destination. Lightwaves are guided through the core of the optical fiber in much the same way that radio frequency (RF) signals are guided through coaxial cable. The lightwaves are guided to the other end of the fiber by being reflected within the core.

The composition of the cladding glass relative to the core glass determines the fiber’s ability to reflect light. That reflection is usually caused by creating a higher refractive index in the core of the glass than in the surrounding cladding glass, creating a “waveguide.” The refractive index of the core is increased by slightly modifying the composition of the core glass, generally by adding small amounts of a dopant. Alternatively, the waveguide can be created by reducing the refractive index of the cladding using different dopants.

Single-Mode and Multimode Fibers
There are two general categories of optical fiber: single-mode and multimode (see
Figure 2).

Multimode fiber was the first type of fiber to be commercialized. It has a much larger core than single-mode fiber, allowing hundreds of modes of light to propagate through the fiber simultaneously. Additionally, the larger core diameter of multimode fiber facilitates the use of lower-cost optical transmitters (such as light emitting diodes [LEDs] or vertical cavity surface emitting lasers [VCSELs]) and connectors.

Single-mode fiber, on the other hand, has a much smaller core that allows only one mode of light at a time to propagate through the core. While it might appear that multimode fibers have higher capacity, in fact the opposite is true. Single-mode fibers are designed to maintain spatial and spectral integrity of each optical signal over longer distances, allowing more information to be transmitted. Its tremendous information-carrying capacity and low intrinsic loss have made single-mode fiber the ideal transmission medium for a multitude of applications. Single-mode fiber is typically used for longer-distance and higher-bandwidth applications (see Figure 3). Multimode fiber is used primarily in systems with short transmission distances (under 2 km), such as premises communications, private data networks, and parallel optic applications.

Optical Fiber Sizes
The international standard for outer cladding diameter of most single-mode optical fibers is 125 microns (µm) for the glass and 245 µm for the coating. This standard is important because it ensures compatibility among connectors, splices, and tools used throughout the industry. Standard single-mode fibers are manufactured with a small core size, approximately 8 to 10 µm in diameter. Multimode fibers have core sizes of 50 to 62.5 µm in diameter.

Questions of Strength
One common misconception about optical fiber is that it must be fragile because it is made of glass. In fact, research, theoretical analysis, and practical experience prove that the opposite is true. While traditional bulk glass is brittle, the ultra-pure glass of optical fibers exhibits both high tensile strength and extreme durability.

How strong is fiber? Figures like 600 or 800 thousand pounds per square inch are often cited, far more than copper’s capability of 100 pounds per square inch. That figure refers to the ultimate tensile strength of fiber produced today. Fiber’s real, rather than theoretical, strength is 2 million pounds per square inch.

ABCs of Fiber Strength
The depth of inherent microscopic flaws on its surface determines the actual strength of optical fiber. These microscopic flaws exist in any fiber. As in a length of chain, the weakest link (or, in fiber’s case, the deepest flaw) determines the ultimate strength of the entire length of the chain. The flaws are distributed along the fiber length – the larger the flaw, the more distance between them along the fiber.

Many fiber manufacturers tensile-load, or proof-test, fibers after production. This process eliminates proof-test size flaws and larger, thereby ensuring that the flaws of most concern are removed and creating a minimum design strength for the fiber.

Life Expectancy
Fiber is designed and manufactured to provide a lifetime of service, provided it is cabled and installed according to recommended procedures. Life expectancy can be extrapolated from many tests. These test results, along with theoretical analysis, support the prediction of long service life. Environmental issues are also important to consider when evaluating a fiber’s mechanical and reliability performance.

Bending Parameters
Optical fiber and cable are easy to install because it is lightweight, small in size, and flexible. Nevertheless, precautions are needed to avoid tight bends, which may cause loss of light or premature fiber failure. Experience and testing show that bare fiber can be safely looped with bend diameters as small as two to three inches, depending on allowable optical loss. Splice trays and other fiber-handling equipment, such as racks, are designed to prevent fiber-installation errors such as this.

Fiber Geometry:
A Key Factor in Splicing and System Performance As greater volumes of fiber in higher fiber-count cables are installed, system engineers are becoming increasingly conscious of the impact of splicing on their systems. Splice yields and system losses have a profound impact on the quality of system performance and the cost of installation.

Glass geometry, the physical dimensions of an optical fiber, has been shown to be a primary contributor to splice loss and splice yield in the field. Early on, one company recognized the benefit provided by tightly controlled fiber geometry and has steadily invested in continuous improvement in this area. The manufacturing process helps engineers reduce systems costs and support the industry’s low maximum splice-loss requirement, typically at around 0.1 dB.

Fiber that exhibits tightly controlled geometry tolerances will not only be easier and faster to splice but will also reduce the need for testing by ensuring predictable, high-quality splice performance. This is particularly true when fibers are spliced by passive, mechanical, or fusion techniques for both single fibers and fiber ribbons. In addition, tight geometry tolerances lead to the additional benefit of flexibility in equipment choice.

The benefits of tighter geometry tolerances can be significant. In today’s fiber-intensive architectures, it is estimated that splicing and testing can account for more than 30 percent of the total labor costs of system installation.

Fiber Geometry Parameters
The three fiber geometry parameters that have the greatest impact on splicing performance include the following:
  • cladding diameter: the outside diameter of the cladding glass region
  • core/clad concentricity (or core-to-cladding offset): how well the core is centered in the cladding glass region
  • fiber curl: the amount of curvature over a fixed length of fiber

These parameters are determined and controlled during the fiber-manufacturing process. As fiber is cut and spliced according to system needs, it is important to be able to count on consistent geometry along the entire length of the fiber and between fibers and not to rely solely on measurements made.

Cladding Diameter
The cladding diameter tolerance controls the outer diameter of the fiber, with tighter tolerances ensuring that fibers are almost exactly the same size. During splicing, inconsistent cladding diameters can cause cores to misalign where the fibers join, leading to higher splice losses. The drawing process controls cladding diameter tolerance, and depending on the manufacturer’s skill level, can be very tightly controlled.

How to Choose Optical Fiber Single-Mode Fiber Performance Characteristics

The key optical performance parameters for single-mode fibers are attenuation, dispersion, and mode-field diameter. Optical fiber performance parameters can vary significantly among fibers from different manufacturers in ways that can affect your system’s performance. It is important to understand how to specify the fiber that best meets system requirements.

Attenuation Attenuation is the reduction of signal strength or light power over the length of the light-carrying medium. Fiber attenuation is measured in decibels per kilometer (dB/km). Optical fiber offers superior performance over other transmission media because it combines high bandwidth with low attenuation. This allows signals to be transmitted over longer distances while using fewer regenerators or amplifiers, thus reducing cost and improving signal reliability.

Attenuation of an optical signal varies as a function of wavelength . Attenuation is very low, as compared to other transmission media (i.e., copper, coaxial cable, etc.), with a typical value of 0.35 dB/km at 1300 nm for standard single-mode fiber. Attenuation at 1550 nm is even lower, with a typical value of 0.25 dB/km. This gives an optical signal, transmitted through fiber, the ability to travel more than 100 km without regeneration or amplification. Attenuation is caused by several different factors, but primarily scattering and absorption. The scattering of light from molecular level irregularities in the glass structure leads to the general shape of the attenuation curve . Further attenuation is caused by light absorbed by residual materials, such as metals or water ions, within the fiber core and inner cladding. It is these water ions that cause the “water peak” region on the attenuation curve, typically around 1383 nm. The removal of water ions is of particular interest to fiber manufacturers as this “water peak” region has a broadening effect and
contributes to attenuation loss for nearby wavelengths. Some manufacturers now offer low water peak single-mode fibers, which offer additional bandwidth and flexibility compared with standard single-mode fibers. Light leakage due to bending, splices, connectors, or other outside forces are other factors resulting in attenuation.