Research is currently taking place at the University of Southampton investigating the use of additive manufacturing in the production of optical fibre and marks yet another innovation in the ever-growing sphere of 3D printing.
The research offers an entirely new way of producing optical fibres capable of more complex structures which may open the doors into a range of industries such as biotechnology and aerospace.
Current production of optical fibre requires a lengthy and arduous process in which a piece of glass is drawn out to make the fibre, which is then given a consistent structure along its length. This is a delicate method which limits the flexibility in its design and thus reduces the fibre's capabilities.
Prof. Jayanta Sahu is the developer behind the research which has offered a new technique for engineers to produce a fibre with more a more complex structure and different features across its length. Sahu has teamed up with co-investigator Dr Shoufeng Yang from the Faculty of Engineering and Environment and the university’s Zepler Institute to conduct the research.
Regarding the research, Sahu claims the team 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.” As a result, current processes which are “too difficult” and “time-consuming” will be eliminated.
However, the complex internal structure of the new fibres makes production a challenge. The photonic bandgap fibre, a new microstructured fibre, exemplifies of the complexity of the design and is hotly-tipped to revolutionise the telecom and Datacom industries.
The ‘stack and draw’ process which is currently employed in fibre production is labour-intensive, requiring preforms to be made by stacking several small glass capillaries by hand. However, new additive manufacturing techniques allow researchers to construct the fibre layer-by-layer using ultra-pure glass powder which poses challenges of its own considering its high melting-point.
The project is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and backed by three companies specialising in fibre optics: ES Technology, a provider of laser material processing systems; Fibrecore, supplier of speciality fibre; and SG Controls, a leading manufacturer of optical fibre equipment.
Sahu believes his research will bring many benefits for a variety of different sectors and revolutionise the way fibre-optics are made. “This is something that has never been tried before and we are excited about starting this project," Sahu, commented: “We hope our work will open up a route to manufacture novel fibre structures in silica and other glasses for a wide range of applications, covering telecommunications, sensing, lab-in-a-fibre, metamaterial fibre, and high-power lasers”.