(or optical fibre) is a flexible, transparent fiber made by drawing glass (silica) or plastic to a diameter slightly thicker than that of a human hair. Optical fibers are used most often as a means to transmit light between the two ends of the fiber and find wide usage in fiber-optic communications, where they permit transmission over longer distances and at higher bandwidths (data rates) than wire cables. Fibers are used instead of metal wires because signals travel along them with lesser amounts of loss; in addition, fibers are also immune to electromagnetic interference, a problem from which metal wires suffer excessively. Fibers are also used for illumination, and are wrapped in bundles so that they may be used to carry images, thus allowing viewing in confined spaces, as in the case of a fiberscope. Specially designed fibers are also used for a variety of other applications, some of them being fiber optic sensors and fiber lasers.
Single-mode optical fiber
In fiber-optic communication, a single-mode optical fiber (SMF) is an optical fiber designed to carry light only directly down the fiber – the transverse mode. Modes are the possible solutions of the Helmholtz equation for waves, which is obtained by combining Maxwell’s equations and the boundary conditions. These modes define the way the wave travels through space, i.e. how the wave is distributed in space. Waves can have the same mode but have different frequencies. This is the case in single-mode fibers, where we can have waves with different frequencies, but of the same mode, which means that they are distributed in space in the same way, and that gives us a single ray of light.
Although the ray travels parallel to the length of the fiber, it is often called transverse mode since its electromagnetic vibrations occur perpendicular (transverse) to the length of the fiber. The 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Charles K. Kao for his theoretical work on the single-mode optical fiber.
Multi-mode optical fiber vs single-mode
The main difference between multi-mode and single-mode optical fiber is that the former has much larger core diameter, typically 50–100 micrometers; much larger than the wavelength of the light carried in it. Because of the large core and also the possibility of large numerical aperture, multi-mode fiber has higher “light-gathering” capacity than single-mode fiber. In practical terms, the larger core size simplifies connections and also allows the use of lower-cost electronics such as light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers (VCSELs) which operate at the 850 nm and 1300 nm wavelength (single-mode fibers used in telecommunications typically operate at 1310 or 1550 nm ).
However, compared to single-mode fibers, the multi-mode fiber bandwidth–distance product limit is lower. Because multi-mode fiber has a larger core-size than single-mode fiber, it supports more than one propagation mode; hence it is limited by modal dispersion, while single mode is not.