Automated process simplifies alignment, splicing of multicore optical fibers

New technique to be reported at OFC/NFOEC 2013.

New multicore optical fibers have many times the signal-carrying capacity of traditional single-core fibers, but their use in telecommunications has been severely restricted because of the challenge in splicing them together. A new splicing technique offers an automated way to accomplish this, with minimal losses in signal quality across the spliced sections. The new method will be described next week at OFC/NFOEC 2013.

In the telecommunications industry, engineers maximize signal-carrying capacity via the process called multiplexing, which allows multiple signals or data streams to be combined within a single fiber cable. One digital phone line, for example, uses 64 kilobits per second of bandwidth, but via multiplexing, more than 1.5 million phone conversations can take place at the same time, carried by one fiber core. With wavelength multiplexing, that one fiber core can send up to 200 different wavelengths of light simultaneously, increasing the capacity to 10 terabits per second, serving about 200 million phone lines.

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Those multiplexed fibers, in turn, can be bundled together into a so-called multicore fiber (MCF), consisting of up to 19 cores -- and up to 19 times the signal-carrying capacity. The challenge, however, is splicing those multicores together. Researchers who work with MCFs in the lab usually have their own preferred manual processes for aligning and splicing fibers, explains Wenxin Zheng, manager of splice engineering at AFL in Duncan, S.C., who developed the new technique to be demonstrated at OFC/NFOEC.

“Although the manual way may be good for a skilled operator in a lab environment for research purposes, automation is the only path that can push MCF to factories and production lines,” adds Zheng. “To align the multiple cores simultaneously is a big challenge. If two fibers to be spliced have random core locations, there is no way to align the entire core.”

In Zheng’s process, which uses a Fujikura FSM-100P+ fusion splicer, the fibers to be spliced are stripped and loaded into the splicer, then rotated and imaged with two video cameras so that their cores can be roughly aligned using a pattern-matching algorithm. Next, using a power-feedback method and image processing, a pair of corresponding cores in each fiber are finely aligned, as is the cladding around the cores. Finally, the cores are heat-spliced.

However, the component cores of MCFs can be aligned if they are created using the same design standard, and if the cores are distributed symmetrically in the MCF -- such as in a seven-core MCF with one central core surrounded by six cores oriented like the spokes of a wagon wheel. In that case, Zheng notes, “We can fine-align one side-core in an MCF and its cladding at the same time. Based on the geometric specifications of the fiber, the rest of the cores will be automatically aligned.”

Zheng’s presentation, “Automated Alignment and Splicing for Multicore Fibers,” will take place at 5 p.m. Monday, March 18 at the Anaheim Convention Center.

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