Fiber optics is an important technology that continues to contribute to the advancement of not only lighting technology, but also communications infrastructure and information technology. Its influence reaches even the fields of medicine, physics, and mechanical engineering. But how does fiber optics work and what makes it so special?
- Fiber optics refers to a bundle of transparent glass or plastic tubes, which can carry light waves. A hundred or more optical fibers are used to form fiber cables. These are long, thin and flexible pieces of transparent glass or plastic tubes, which are bundled together. Optical fibers serve as the core, and each piece is as thin as a single strand of human hair. These delicate bundled pieces are then subjected to cladding—a covering with a reflective layer, and then a buffer coating serving as the protective layer keeping it free from moisture and damage. In parts or ends where light is intended to go through, no reflective layer or protective coating is added. Here’s where it gets more complicated. To join bundles of optical fibers, their ends should be cleaved first and made perfectly flat. Then they undergo fiber splicing, where they are aligned and connected either mechanically or using an electric arc. Optical fiber connectors may be used in place of splicing to make faster, movable connections.
- Light travels through fiber cables, carrying with it data and images. At one end of the fiber cable, infrared light, which is commonly used, shines through and travels down the cable line. However, light tends to scatter especially when there are bends, and this is where the reflective layer is useful. The reflective layer’s purpose is to bounce back the light that scatters, making it go back down to continue following the cable path. Light continues to move forward in the fiber cable and when it scatters again, the reflective layer keeps it grounded to its path. This cycle goes on until it reaches the end where light goes through and along with it, data and images are transmitted. In areas of the fiber cable where there is no reflective layer and protective covering, light will definitely leak out. There are two types of optical fibers. Single mode fibers have smaller cores that transmit a single ray of light, particularly infrared laser light. These are more suited for longer distances. Multi-mode fibers on the other hand, have larger cores that transmit infrared light from LEDs and are suited for shorter distances, particularly in office buildings, schools, etc. where high amounts of power are used.
- The process of total internal reflection makes fiber optics unique. This is what enables light to travel long distances without the danger of losing energy or diminishing and corrupting the quality of data and images that it transmits. Optical fibers are actually preferred over traditional metal wires because it works differently and has different properties from that of metal. They’re not susceptible to electromagnetic interference and electromagnetic pulse, which can affect the quality of data transmission in metal wires and cables. Also, fiber cables don’t conduct electricity, which make them perfect for placing communications equipment in high-voltage areas and those at risk of lightning strikes. The beauty of fiber optics is that it transmits a larger amount of data clear and crisp through fiber cables, and at relatively faster speeds too. That’s why it’s mainly used for Internet technology and long distance communication where a network of cables are connected. This technology can also be seen in simple, everyday products like industrial lighting, toys and artificial Christmas trees. It is not without flaws, though. Fiber loss, also known as attenuation or transmission loss—a weakening of a light wave’s intensity, occurs especially when signals are transmitted across longer distances. Continuing innovations and research aim to reduce fiber loss and strengthen the power of light waves. Needless to say, fiber optics continues to shape technology and the world as we know it.