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Away from the limelight

Gemma Church assesses the market for fibre optics beyond the telecoms industry

Fibre optics are being placed on a pedestal by the telecoms companies with the likes of Virgin Media in the UK using tag lines such as ‘it’s fast, it’s fibre optic’ to advertise its broadband wares.

But away from the attention of the telecoms industry, fibre optics are quietly helping a range of industries and applications, with companies realising that there is more to optical fibres than speedy broadband; increasingly bespoke fibre technology is being used in military applications, science labs and even dental surgeries.

While the majority of fibre optics may remain in the telecoms sector, there are an increasing number of smaller, niche markets opening up for the devices as Sinclair Vass, EMEA sales director for JDSU optical communications division, says: ‘A variety of companies are using fibre optics outside of the telecoms sector, and these are often small to mid-sized firms that provide integrated high power solutions to bigger industrial firms, for example in the medical/dental equipment or automotive markets.

‘Around 10 to 15 per cent of our fibre optics business deals with the non-telecoms applications,’ Vass adds.

JDSU’s main focus might be within the communications market, with the company providing optical products and test and measurement solutions for the industry, but its expertise and product portfolio is spreading to include non-comms quarters too, as Vass explains: ‘The non-telecoms area tends to address applications which are more at the fibre laser diode level, and the customer base is very diverse compared with the telecoms sector.

‘There is also significant vertical integration in the marketplace with laser manufacturers making their own pump diodes. This can be difficult to penetrate for merchant vendors such as JDSU,’ he adds.

Gooch and Housego is a well-known name in the photonics field, and one that has also been moving into the non-telecoms fibre optics market: the company acquired the fibre optic designer, manufacturer and supplier Sifam Fibre Optics in May 2007.

Sifam, which now sits as one of five recently acquired companies under the Gooch and Housego umbrella, makes fibre optics for a wide range of applications, including biomedical, aerospace and defence and industrial.

Sifam’s division of Gooch and Housego is making fibre interferometers for Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) systems, a technique that is already being used in ophthalmology to image the retina. OCT produces micron resolution 3D images of tissue, penetrating to skin depths of several millimetres, by measuring the way different light beams interfere with one another.

Another fibre optics supplier is Elliot Scientific, which manufactures a wide range of flexure-based micro-positioners that are used in fibre optic alignment. These have been used extensively where they are needed to launch light into fibres, or in connecting fibres to other devices such as lasers or waveguides.

Mike Elliot, founder of Elliot Scientific, says: ‘These devices found many applications in the telecom arena for waveguide splitters and fibre amplifiers. In more recent times, many of our fibre launch systems are now being used to launch light into fibres for scientific applications, specifically into photonic crystal fibres. The accuracy and stability of these flexure-based systems is ideal for the small core diameters found in these fibres.’

The photonic crystal fibres, which Elliot mentions, are a new kind of optical fibre that scientists are using to study the properties of light and different materials. They have hollow cores and are used to reduce the pulse lengths of lasers and create very broad bandwidths of light.

Fibres on the frontline

One of the long-standing application areas seems to be within aerospace and military applications, as JDSU’s Vass, says: ‘Fibre diodes are used for a range of applications within the military, which is rather secretive about exactly what they are used for, but the market for military applications has increased, especially since 9/11.’

And one of Sifam’s recent aero and defence projects culminated in the delivery of a fibre-based Passive Optical Network (PON) demonstrator to the Airbus, after four years of working as part of the Fonda consortium between 2003 and 2007, which is a DTi funded group developing the use of fibre-based communications for civil aircraft. Gooch and Housego recently filed a patent relating to the aircraft’s PON application.

Fibre optics are even popping up in dentists’ surgeries, according to Vass, who adds: ‘An emerging area for fibre optics is within dental applications, where users are looking to use fibre lasers to make teeth look nicer, or even in making tooth drilling a far less unpleasant and painful experience.’

And, just when you thought companies could not add any more gadgets to mobile phones, fibre optics has opened up a new appliance to handset addicts, as Vass says: ‘Pumped lasers with fibre optical components are also being used within mobile phones to produce projections of images and videos onto walls.

‘This is still in the development phase, but if one of the big mobile players takes it up, we will see a huge increase in demand for fibre optical components because of this mobile projector application.’

And even though the dark times of the collapse of the telecom industry are long gone, the future of fibre optics within the non-telecoms arena is more certain than its big brother’s, as Vass adds: ‘The non-telecoms area of the fibre optics market is less volatile than the telecoms end.’

So while the telecommunications companies can continue to shout about the speed of their broadband, fibre optics continue to quietly pop up in more and more of the non-telecoms arenas.

Plasma fusion

A Princeton/MIT collaboration is using fibre optics from CeramOptec Industries in an effort to solve one of the most pressing problems in plasma fusion: how to contain the plasma long enough to extract useable energy. Turbulence in the plasma (which is basically a charge-neutral soup made up of equal ratios of positive and negative particles) causes energy leaks out of the magnetic confinement, but to study that turbulence you need to see what is going on and, with the plasma at about 100 million degrees in temperature, it’s not a task that conventional imaging systems can tackle.

The scientists are using a fused quartz silica coherent bundle to carry an image of the plasma to a high-speed (150,000 frames per second) camera to capture and study the movement of deuterium at the plasma’s edges. Deuterium, like its cousin hydrogen, emits visible red light which is what the system looks at.

At these temperatures, however, the plasma also emits copious quantities of X-ray energy and the previous system, which used a glass fibre bundle, was damaged by X-rays. According to Stewart Zweben, principal research physicist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, and Jim Terry, principal research scientist at MIT, the glass darkens, becoming opaque at some wavelengths, which renders glass fibre bundles unable to transmit a useful image.

Zweben and Terry add: ‘This was not a problem in previous MIT experiments that did not produce as much X-ray radiation, but it proved to be a problem later. The glass fibres became useless after a few weeks but the experimental programme was to last six to nine months.’

So the team chose a source of fused quartz silica that could provide a coherent bundle for imaging and chose CeramOptec, which makes its own fibre blanks and could readily supply the proper materials.

The bundle will carry an image (incorporating a lens to focus the image onto the end-place of the bundle) of the plasma’s edges to the high-speed camera for capture and analysis. The bundle will be around 15 feet long as it must pass through a bellows to get to the outside from within the reactor chamber and will be 4 X 4mm in size and composed of 70μm fibres. The fibre bundle is due for delivery soon and will be reassembled in the reactor (currently apart for maintenance and upgrades) by year’s end.