Researchers want to use 3D printing to produce optical fibres in the hope that the additive manufacturing technique leads to improvement in the fibres' structure and enables new applications.
The project of University of Southampton researchers is the first of its kind as 3D printing has never before been used in manufacturing of optical fibres.
Existing manufacturing techniques give a consistent structure of the fibre along its length, but only provide limited control over its shape and composition in three dimensions.
The researchers believe that by controlling the structure throughout, they could improve the fibres' performance.
“We will design, fabricate and employ novel Multiple Materials Additive Manufacturing (MMAM) equipment to enable us to make optical fibre preforms (both in conventional and microstructured fibre geometries) in silica and other host glass materials,” said Professor Jayanta Sahu, who leads the project. “Our proposed process can be utilised to produce complex preforms, which are otherwise too difficult, too time-consuming or currently impossible to be achieved by existing fabrication techniques.”
The first step in making an optical fibre is producing a so called preform – a piece of glass from which the fibre is drawn. 3D printing, the researchers believe, would provide a much better control over the characteristics of such preforms.
Some types of fibres, including emerging photonic bandgap fibres, have a very intricate internal structure with the smallest faults affecting the fibre’s performance.
Such fibres are usually created by stacking several smaller glass capillaries or canes together by hand to form the preform.
With 3D printing, the researchers will be able to form complex fibre structures from ultra-pure glass powder, layer-by-layer, gradually building up the shape to create a preform several tens of centimetres in lengths.
“We hope our work will open up a route to manufacture novel fibre structures in silica and other glasses for a wide range of applications, covering telecommunications, sensing, lab-in-a-fibre, metamaterial fibre, and high-power lasers,” Professor Sahu said. “This is something that has never been tried before and we are excited about starting this project.”
The researchers would need to solve several problems. Glass melts at extremely high temperatures of more than 2000 �C, which would place extra demands on the 3D-printing kit.
They will also have to exercise extreme precision to control the waveguide geometry of the fibres and achieve the smoothest possible transition between individual layers.