New material gives boost to optical fibers

British and American scientists say they’ve found a way to embed electronics into optical fibers, simplifying and speeding up telecommunications.

Rather than trying, like previous researchers, to merge a flat chip with a round optical fiber, they’ve found a way to build a new kind of optical fibre with its own integrated electronic component – removing the need to integrate fiber-optics onto a chip.

To do this, they used high-pressure chemistry techniques to deposit semiconducting materials layer by layer directly into tiny holes in optical fibers.

“The big breakthrough here is that we don’t need the whole chip as part of the finished product. We have managed to build the junction – the active boundary where all the electronic action takes place – right into the fiber,” says Dr Pier Sazio, senior research fellow at the University of Southampton.

“Moreover, while conventional chip fabrication requires multimillion dollar clean room facilities, our process can be performed with simple equipment that costs much less.”

The difference in shape between an optical fiber and a chip isn’t the only problem with traditional methods, says John Badding, professor of chemistry at Penn State.

“Another challenge is the alignment of pieces that are so small. An optical fiber is 10 times smaller than the width of a human hair,” he says.

“On top of that, there are light-guiding pathways that are built onto chips that are even smaller than the fibers by as much as 100 times, so imagine just trying to line those two devices up. That feat is a big challenge for today’s technology.”

The new development, if commercialized, could drmatically improve telecommunications networks. With a data signal never needing to leave the fiber, systems could be faster, cheaper and more efficient.