The researchers at the University of Southampton are currently investigating a new way of manufacturing optical fibre. And that is through 3D printing, or, in other words, additive manufacturing.
This new research could potentially pave the way for more complex structures that can be capable of unlocking a host of applications in many different industries, such as telecommunications, aerospace, biotechnology, etc.
As of now, there are a couple of ways to manufacture optical fibre. One of them is with the help of a piece of glass from which the optical fibre is drawn. This gives manufacturers a consistent length and shape of the fibre. In the case of 3D printing, it is difficult to control the shape and composition of the fibre, which results in limited flexibility in design and the capabilities that the fibre can offer.
The new additive manufacturing technique is currently being developed by Professor Jayanta Sahu, along with his colleagues from the University of Southampton’s Zepler Institute and co-investigator, Dro Shoufeng Yang from the Faculty of Engineering and Environment. We believe that the new manufacturing technique will help manufacture preforms that are far more complex and have different features along their lengths.
Professor Jayanta Sahu says that “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.”
Professor Sahu further says “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.”
One of the most challenging things of 3D manufacturing optical fibre, is making the preform, especially when it has a complex internal structure. Consider the photonic bandgap fibre for instance. It is a new type of microstructed fibre that is anticipated to revolutionise the telecoms and datacoms industries in particular.
With the help of the new additive manufacturing technique, the researchers will be able to design and manufacture the complex internal structure of the optical fibre using ultra-pure glass powder. And as is the case with 3D printing, the researching will be able to manufacture a complex preform, layer by layer, gradually building up the shape of the optical fibre.
There are still numerous challenges that they will have to face, such as the high melting temperature of glass, the need for precise control of dopants, refractive index profiles, waveguide geometry, etc. any changes in those things will result in the alteration of the fibre.