Technological applications in the tech area of "Microfluidic Optical Fibers"
9. Microfluidic Optical Fibers
: Tiny droplets of fluid inside fiber-optic channels could improve the flow of data-carrying photons, speeding transmission and improving reliability.
Prototype devices, called microfluidic optical fibers, may be the key to superfast delivery of everything from e-mail to web-based computer programs, once "bandwidth" again becomes the mantra.
While the optical fibers that carry today's phone and data transmissions consist of glass tubing that is flexible but solid, a scientist utilizes fibers bored through with microscopic channels, ranging from one to 300 micrometers in diameter, depending on their use.
Pumping tiny amounts of various fluids into them and then controlling the expansion, contraction, and movement of these liquid "plugs" causes the optical properties of the fibers to change.
Structures such as tiny heating coils printed directly on the fiber precisely control the size, shape, and position of the plugs.
Modifying the plugs' properties enables them to perform critical functions, such as correcting error-causing distortions and directing data flows more efficiently, thus boosting bandwidth far more cheaply than is possible today.
Today, these tune-up jobs are partly done by gadgets that convert light signals into electrons and then back into photons.
This "removal of light" invariably causes distortions and losses. Another idea is to do these jobs more directly by replacing today's gadgets with sections of fluid-filled optical fibers strategically placed in the existing network.
Making sections of the fiber itself tunable could eliminate some of these "light-removing" components. Whenever it is possible to avoid the need to remove light, there is a big cost advantage, reliability advantage, and increase in capacity.
Other approaches to making fibers that actively tune light, as opposed to serving as passive pipes, are also under development.
With the telecom sector still in chaotic mode, leaving thousands of kilometers of underground fiber-optic cables unused, nobody expects a rapid embrace of new optical communications technologies.
Few question that a push to a much faster internet will eventually return. Though the timing for commercialization is uncertain, the fibers have already moved beyond lab demonstrations; prototype devices are being tested.
The marriage of optics and tiny flows of fluid also holds promise for other applications.
One possibility is a tool that could use light to detect substances like disease-indicating proteins in blood, useful for medical diagnosis or drug discovery.
Even if it doesn't speed downloads, the plumbing might still improve doctors' checkups.
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