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Researchers 3D print silica glass micro-optics on optic fiber tips

The development from KTH Royal Institute of Technology could enable faster internet and improved connectivity, as well as innovations like smaller sensors and imaging systems

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According to KTH Royal Institute of Technologyresearchers have 3D printed silica glass micro-optics on the tips of optic fibers – surfaces as small as the cross-section of a human hair. The development could enable faster internet and improved connectivity, as well as innovations like smaller sensors and imaging systems.

Reporting in the journal ACS Nano, the researchers at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm say integrating silica glass optical devices with optical fibers enables multiple innovations, including more sensitive remote sensors for environment and healthcare. The printing techniques could also prove valuable in the production of pharmaceuticals and chemicals.

KTH Professor Kristinn Gylfason says the method overcomes longstanding limitations in structuring optical fiber tips with silica glass, which often require high-temperature treatments that compromise the integrity of temperature-sensitive fiber coatings.

KTH Royal Institute of Technology researchers 3D print silica glass micro-optics on optic fiber tips that could enable faster internet.
An optical fiber cable is set up on the 3D printer. Photo credit: David Callahan.

In contrast to other methods, the process begins with a base material that doesn’t contain carbon, meaning high temperatures are not needed to drive out carbon to make the glass structure transparent.

The researchers printed a silica glass sensor that proved more resilient than a standard plastic-based sensor after multiple measurements. “We demonstrated a glass refractive index sensor integrated onto the fiber tip that allowed us to measure the concentration of organic solvents. This measurement is challenging for polymer-based sensors due to the corrosiveness of the solvents,” said Lee-Lun Lai, the study’s lead author.

“These structures are so small you could fit 1,000 of them on the surface of a grain of sand, which is about the size of sensors being used today,” said Po-Han Huang, the study’s co-author.

The researchers also demonstrated a technique for printing nano gratings – ultra-small patterns etched onto surfaces at the nanometer scale – that are used to manipulate light in precise ways and have potential applications in quantum communication.

“By bridging the gap between 3D printing and photonics, the implications of this research are far-reaching, with potential applications in microfluidic devices, MEMS accelerometers, and fiber-integrated quantum emitters,” said Gylfason.

The authors have filed a patent application for the technique.

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