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Fiber-Optic Technology


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.

The Design of Fiber
Core, Cladding, and Coating

An optical fiber consists of two different types of highly pure, solid glass, composed to form the core and cladding. A protective acrylate coating (see Figure 1) then surrounds the cladding. In most cases, the protective coating is a dual layer composition.

Figure 1. Core, Cladding, and Coating

A protective coating is applied to the glass fiber as the final step in the manufacturing process. This coating protects the glass from dust and scratches that can affect fiber strength. This protective coating can be comprised of two layers: a soft inner layer that cushions the fiber and allows the coating to be stripped from the glass mechanically and a harder outer layer that protects the fiber during handling, particularly the cabling, installation, and termination processes.

Single-Mode and Multimode Fibers

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

Figure 2. Single-Mode and Multimode Fibers

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. Singlemode 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.

Figure 3. Optical Fiber Sizes


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