Researchers at the University of Bath have installed a precision machine to make optical fibres that could be used for applications ranging from diagnosing cancer to engineering jet engines.
The fibre-drawing tower, the second to be installed at the university, uses a precisely controlled furnace to melt and stretch glass optical fibres to the diameter of a human hair.
The glass fibres, designed with a honeycomb structure of microscopic holes running along their length, can have different optical properties depending on their structure.
Different wavelengths of light are perceived as different colours – red light has a long wavelength whereas blue light has a shorter wavelength, for example. The Bath research team have helped to develop optical fibres that change the wavelength, and therefore colour, of the light that shines down them.
Dr William Wadsworth, director of the University’s Centre for Photonics & Photonic Materials, said: “Generally, lasers are high-energy light sources of a single colour. However, the supercontinuum fibre converts red laser light into white light – a remarkable process that is made possible by the high intensity of a pulsed laser beam.
“This is useful in applications where you need to make a laser of several different colours, such as in medical scanning for cancers or using a confocal microscope in biology.
“This is a unique cross between a light bulb and a laser that simply didn’t exist 10 years ago.”
The new tower will double the capacity to make fibres, and can also use a broader temperature range, so scientists can make finer, more delicate structures and use a greater variety of materials.
Wadsworth added: “Most of the fibres we make here are made of silica-based glass. However, with our new facility we will be able to investigate a greater range of materials, and hope to discover new applications for the fibres.
“Bath is one of only three universities in the UK to have this facility, so this new tower will ensure that we stay at the forefront of photonics research.”