How Fiber Optics Work

MCVD process for making the preform blank

Image courtesy Fibercore Ltd.

How Are Optical Fibers Made?

Now that we know how fiber-optic systems work and why they are useful -- how do they make them? Optical fibers are made of extremely pure optical glass. We think of a glass window as transparent, but the thicker the glass gets, the less transparent it becomes due to impurities in the glass. However, the glass in an optical fiber has far fewer impurities than window-pane glass. One company's description of the quality of glass is as follows: If you were on top of an ocean that is miles of solid core optical fiber glass, you could see the bottom clearly.

Making optical fibers requires the following steps:

  1. Making a preform glass cylinder
  2. Drawing the fibers from the preform
  3. Testing the fibers
Making the Preform Blank

The glass for the preform is made by a process called modified chemical vapor deposition (MCVD).

In MCVD, oxygen is bubbled through solutions of silicon chloride (SiCl4), germanium chloride (GeCl4) and/or other chemicals. The precise mixture governs the various physical and optical properties (index of refraction, coefficient of expansion, melting point, etc.). The gas vapors are then conducted to the inside of a synthetic silica or quartz tube (cladding) in a special lathe. As the lathe turns, a torch is moved up and down the outside of the tube. The extreme heat from the torch causes two things to happen:

How Fiber Optics Work

Lathe used in preparing the preform blank

Photo courtesy Fibercore Ltd.

  • The silicon and germanium react with oxygen, forming silicon dioxide (SiO2) and germanium dioxide (GeO2).
  • The silicon dioxide and germanium dioxide deposit on the inside of the tube and fuse together to form glass.

The lathe turns continuously to make an even coating and consistent blank. The purity of the glass is maintained by using corrosion-resistant plastic in the gas delivery system (valve blocks, pipes, seals) and by precisely controlling the flow and composition of the mixture. The process of making the preform blank is highly automated and takes several hours. After the preform blank cools, it is tested for quality control (index of refraction).

Drawing Fibers from the Preform Blank

Once the preform blank has been tested, it gets loaded into a fiber drawing tower.

How Fiber Optics Work

Diagram of a fiber drawing tower used to draw optical glass fibers from a preform blank

The blank gets lowered into a graphite furnace (3,452 to 3,992 degrees Fahrenheit or 1,900 to 2,200 degrees Celsius) and the tip gets melted until a molten glob falls down by gravity. As it drops, it cools and forms a thread.

How Fiber Optics Work

The operator threads the strand through a series of coating cups (buffer coatings) and ultraviolet light curing ovens onto a tractor-controlled spool. The tractor mechanism slowly pulls the fiber from the heated preform blank and is precisely controlled by using a laser micrometer to measure the diameter of the fiber and feed the information back to the tractor mechanism. Fibers are pulled from the blank at a rate of 33 to 66 ft/s (10 to 20 m/s) and the finished product is wound onto the spool. It is not uncommon for spools to contain more than 1.4 miles (2.2 km) of optical fiber.

Testing the Finished Optical Fiber

The finished optical fiber is tested for the following:

How Fiber Optics Work

Finished spool of optical fiber

Photo courtesy Corning

  • Tensile strength - Must withstand 100,000 lb/in2 or more
  • Refractive index profile - Determine numerical aperture as well as screen for optical defects
  • Fiber geometry - Core diameter, cladding dimensions and coating diameter are uniform
  • Attenuation - Determine the extent that light signals of various wavelengths degrade over distance
  • Information carrying capacity (bandwidth) - Number of signals that can be carried at one time (multi-mode fibers)
  • Chromatic dispersion - Spread of various wavelengths of light through the core (important for bandwidth)
  • Operating temperature/humidity range
  • Temperature dependence of attenuation
  • Ability to conduct light underwater - Important for undersea cables

­Once t­he fibers have passed the quality control, they are sold to telephone companies, cable companies and network providers. Many companies are currently replacing their old copper-wire-based systems with new fiber-optic-based systems to improve speed, capacity and clarity.