1000 times smaller than a grain of sand – latest fiber optic technology can increase internet speed

Set up for 3D printing of micro sensors and nano gratings

Swedish researchers have innovated 3D printing by developing silica glass micro-optics on optical fibers, promising faster internet, improved sensors and advanced imaging systems, while avoiding damage to fiber coatings from high temperatures. Credit: David Callahan

Swedish researchers have 3D printed silica glass micro-optics on optical fibers, improving internet speed and connectivity. More resilient and precise, this technique could revolutionize remote sensing, pharmaceuticals and photonics.

In a first for communications, Swedish researchers have successfully 3D printed silica glass micro-optics directly onto the ends of optical fibers, areas as small as the cross-section of a human hair. This breakthrough could lead to faster internet speeds and improved connectivity, along with the development of smaller sensors and more compact imaging systems.

Reporting in the news ACS NanoResearchers at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm say the integration of silica glass optical devices with fiber optics will enable multiple innovations, including more sensitive remote sensors for the environment and healthcare.

The printing techniques they report could also be valuable in the production of pharmaceutical and chemical products.

Installation for printing silica glass microstructures

Lee-Lun Lai demonstrates the setup to print silica glass microstructures on an optical fiber. Credit: Lee-Lun Lai demonstrates the setup to print silica glass microstructures on an optical fiber.

Advances in printing techniques

KTH professor Kristinn Gylfason says the method overcomes long-standing limitations in structuring optical fiber tips with silica glass, which he says often requires high-temperature treatments that compromise the integrity of temperature-sensitive fiber coatings. Unlike other methods, the process starts with a base material that does not contain carbon. This means that high temperatures are not required to drive out carbon and make the glass structure transparent.

The study’s lead author, Lee-Lun Lai, says that after multiple measurements, the researchers printed a silica glass sensor that proved to be more resilient than a standard plastic-based sensor.

Microscopic image of a printed glass demonstration structure on the end of an optical fiber

Microscopic image of a printed glass demonstration structure on the end of an optical fiber. Credit: David Callahan

“We demonstrated a glass refractive index sensor integrated into the fiber tip that allowed us to measure the concentration of organic solvents. This measurement is challenging for polymer-based sensors due to the corrosiveness of the solvents,” says Lai.

“These structures are so small that a thousand of them can fit on the surface of a grain of sand, which is about the size of sensors used today,” said Po-Han Huang, co-author of the study.

The researchers also demonstrated a technique for printing nanolattices, ultra-small patterns that are etched onto surfaces at the nanometer scale. These are used to manipulate light in precise ways and have potential applications in quantum communications.

Gylfason says the ability to 3D print arbitrary glass structures directly onto the fiber tip opens new frontiers in photonics. “Bridging the gap between 3D printing and photonics, the implications of this research are far-reaching, with potential applications in microfluidic devices, MEMS accelerometers and fiber-integrated quantum emitters,” he says.

Reference: “3D Printing of Glass Micro-Optics with Subwavelength Features on Optical Fiber Tips” by Lee-Lun Lai, Po-Han Huang, Göran Stemme, Frank Niklaus and Kristinn B. Gylfason, March 29, 2024, ACS Nano.
DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.3c11030

The study was funded by the Swedish Taiwan Research Projects 2019 and the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research.

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