When light passes from a medium with one index of refraction (m1) to another medium with a lower index of refraction (m2), it bends or refracts away from an imaginary line perpendicular to the surface (normal line). As the angle of the beam through m1 becomes greater with respect to the normal line, the refracted light through m2 bends further away from the line.
At one particular angle (critical angle), the refracted light will not go into m2, but instead will travel along the surface between the two media (sine [critical angle] = n2/n1 where n1 and n2 are the indices of refraction [n1 is greater than n2]). If the beam through m1 is greater than the critical angle, then the refracted beam will be reflected entirely back into m1 (total internal reflection), even though m2 may be transparent!
In physics, the critical angle is described with respect to the normal line. In fiber optics, the critical angle is described with respect to the parallel axis running down the middle of the fiber. Therefore, the fiber-optic critical angle = (90 degrees - physics critical angle).
In an optical fiber, the light travels through the core (m1, high index of refraction) by constantly reflecting from the cladding (m2, lower index of refraction) because the angle of the light is always greater than the critical angle. Light reflects from the cladding no matter what angle the fiber itself gets bent at, even if it's a full circle!
Because the cladding does not absorb any light from the core, the light wave can travel great distances. However, some of the light signal degrades within the fiber, mostly due to impurities in the glass. The extent that the signal degrades depends upon the purity of the glass and the wavelength of the transmitted light (for example, 850 nm = 60 to 75 percent/km; 1,300 nm = 50 to 60 percent/km; 1,550 nm is greater than 50 percent/km). Some premium optical fibers show much less signal degradation -- less than 10 percent/km at 1,550 nm.
For more information on fiber optics and related topics, check out the links below.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- How Light Works
- How Lasers Work
- How Cable Television Works
- How DSL Works
- How LAN Switches Work
- How FireWire Works
- How Ethernet Works
- How Routers Work
- How Telephones Work
- How Web Servers Work
- How Cable Modems Work
- How Digital Clocks Work
- How does a long distance call work?
- How does a T1 line work?
- What do the little boxes that the phone company has around our neighborhood do?