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December 23, 2002

Electronic newsroom



Scientists Devise Tiny Liquid Crystal Devices for Telecommunications

UPTON, NY - Scientists have built tiny liquid crystal devices on the tips of optical fibers - the plastic or glass cables used to carry high-speed signals from television, computer, telephone and radar - to correct signal distortions in high-speed optical communications. Optical communications form the backbone of the Internet and telephone networks and are envisioned to carry multimedia data in the future. The new device, which uses liquid crystals instead of the currently used lithium niobate, could make optical communications more affordable in the future, as described in the December 30 issue of Applied Physics Letters.

The researchers are at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and at Bell Laboratories, Lucent Technologies’ Research and Development arm.

Liquid crystal device built on the tip of an optical fiber (left) and liquid crystal polarization controller next to a sewing needle (right).

“Most designs for these distortion-correcting devices rely on lithium niobate in spite of the high cost associated with these materials,” says Ron Pindak, a physicist at the National Synchrotron Light Source at Brookhaven Lab and a coauthor of the study. “Our device has many advantages: its speed is fast enough for these corrections, it is also reset free, and it has a potential to be low in cost.”

In an optical fiber, the signal is carried by utlrashort pulses of light. Initially, in each pulse, the light's electric field follows a given direction. Then, because the optical fiber is not perfectly circular, the electric field's direction, or polarization, splits into two components that propagate at different speeds, causing the pulse to spread, an effect referred to as polarization mode dispersion (PMD).

External mechanical vibrations (caused by a passing train or high winds, for example) cause the PMD to vary with time. At very high transmission rates - which can reach beyond 40 billion pulses per second, these time-varying distortions are so severe that they need to be compensated for to achieve reliable operation of the optical transmission. Current optical transmission systems include, at regular intervals, PMD-compensating devices, which incorporate a device to control the polarization state of the optical pulses. Most of the existing designs of polarization controllers rely on lithium niobate because of its high speed, which is needed to keep up with the mechanical vibrations and other effects that cause the distortions.

“Conventional wisdom suggested that liquid crystals could never achieve the necessary speeds,” explains John Rogers, director of the Nanotechnology Research Department at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, and a coauthor of the study. “Our work shows not only that liquid crystals can be fast enough, but also that the devices themselves can be built right on the tip of an optical fiber, in a very compact and attractive geometry.”

The researchers devised a new approach to correct the optical polarizations fast enough to compensate for disturbances in the fiber. “Say you want to rotate polarization by one degree,” says Bharat Acharya, the study’s lead author and a post-doctoral contract physicist working at Bell Labs as part of the National Science Foundation’s academic-liaison-with-industry program. “In our approach, you initially apply an electrical ‘overdrive pulse’ that is oriented to turn the liquid crystal molecules by 70 degrees, but then you immediately stop the pulse after the molecules have rotated by only one degree. In this way, the molecules rotate by one degree much faster than if you had applied a pulse with the same speed to turn them by only one degree.”

Successful tests of this device, performed in collaboration with Lothar Möller, another physicist at Bell Labs, have generated considerable interest in the field. A conference proceeding describing the test results was ranked as one of the most important contributions to the upcoming Optical Fiber Conference in March 2003 in Atlanta, Georgia. Additionally, Bell Lab scientists are also interacting with industrial partners to explore the manufacture and commercialization of these devices.

This research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.

PDF copy of the paper, "In-fiber nematic liquid crystal optical modulator based on in-plane switching with microsecond response time".

The U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory conducts research in the physical, biomedical, and environmental sciences, as well as in energy technologies. Brookhaven also builds and operates major facilities available to university, industrial, and government scientists. The Laboratory is managed by Brookhaven Science Associates, a limited liability company founded by Stony Brook University and Battelle, a nonprofit applied science and technology organization.