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What is Fiber-Optic Technology?

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  • Written By: T. Broderick
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 23 September 2016
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Fiber-optic technology refers to thin fibers that transmit light through internal refraction. The field of fiber-optics studies the practical applications of this technology. Though first invented in the 1840s, 21st century applications include telecommunications and high-speed data transfer over the Internet. Though silica is still the most cost-efficient material when making fiber-optic technology, new materials bring certain advantages. Besides transporting information, the technology has other practical applications including transmitting electricity.

A single optical fiber is the basis for all fiber-optic technology. Each fiber has multiple layers, with the inner core the most relevant to the fiber's purpose. Light reflects within the core from start to finish, this internal reflection guaranteeing that no light is lost. This principle is demonstrated by the fact that only the ends of optical fibers shine brightly. The diameter of the core regulates the efficiency of light transmission; a larger or smaller diameter changes the light's angle of refraction, thus speeding up or slowing down the rate of transmission.

French scientists in the 1840s first demonstrated the basis of fiber-optic technology. An American scientist in the early 1950s invented the first modern optical fiber. Various contributions by scientists from around the world proved the modern applications of fiber-optics: a medium for transmitting telecommunications. Fiber-optic technology was an ideal candidate as the rate and speed of data transmission was significantly higher than that of previous metallic wires.

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With the advent of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, fiber-optic technology was again adopted as the most efficient way to handle the Internet's nearly exponential growth. In conjunction with telecommunications satellites, land-based and undersea fiber-optic cables make up the backbone of the Internet's transmission network. The rise in data traffic due to peer-to-peer networks and video sharing websites will necessitate the further expansion of this fiber-optic network.

A number of materials are the basis for fiber-optic technology. The most common ingredient of an optical fiber is silica. Though silica is an excellent light transmission medium, recent research into coating silica fibers with aluminum dioxide has led to greater transmission efficiency. Fluoride and phosphate glass are other popular materials, each having distinct advantages over silica. As of 2011, these materials' relatively higher cost makes them a less popular choice for manufacturers.

Besides transferring data, fiber-optic technology has the capability to transmit electricity. Though less efficient than copper wire, certain applications require that a power cable contain no metal. For example, magnetic fields produced by MRI machines would interfere with copper wire, making the machine inoperable. Fiber optic power cables eliminate this problem.

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