Manufacturing News, South Australia, Space Manufacturing

Commercial-grade optical fibres fabrication in space

University of Adelaide-produced special glass rods have been transformed into over eight km of optical fibre aboard the International Space Station.

This major landmark in the development of the next generation of optical fibres for quantum communication is part of a strategic partnership between the University’s Institute for Advanced Photonics (IPAS) and Commercial Partner Flawless Photonics Inc.

This milestone in quantum communication optical fibre advancement is the result of a strategic partnership between the University’s Institute for Advanced Photonics (IPAS) and Commercial Partner Flawless Photonics Inc.

Professor Heike Ebendorff-Heidepriem, an Australian Research Council Industry Laureate Fellow and deputy director of IPAS, along with her ANFF-Optofab team, supplied 20 ZBLAN glass rods for ultra-low loss optical fibre.

Photonics designed and constructed a compact drawing tower to produce optical fibre in space.

It was launched aboard a SpaceX rocket from Florida on January 31st, it is now operational on the ISS.

“For a ZBLAN fibre to deliver on its potential of being the most transparent material that can be manufactured, there are two obstacles that must be overcome. First gravity causes the ZBLAN to crystallise during the drawing process, and second, the purity of the glass must be enhanced by a factor of 1000 for it to fulfil its maximum potential,” said professor Ebendorff-Heidepriem.

Flawless Photonics worked on building a fibre drawing module that can operate in microgravity in space to overcome the first challenge

Professor Ebendorff-Heidepriem and her team are working on the challenge of fabricating high-purity special ZBLAN glass rods to be drawn into fibre.

“We have a world-class facility for glass and optical fibre manufacturing at the University of Adelaide, making ANFF-Optofab Adelaide one of the few such places in the world able to manufacture such material,” said Ebendorff-Heidepriem,

“This achievement follows over two years of dedicated efforts, overcoming challenges in developing, building, and testing the miniaturised fibre draw tower by Flawless Photonics.”

Upon the return of these space-drawn fibres to Earth, Flawless Photonics and the team at IPAS will conduct various analyses and experiments to determine the properties of the space-drawn fibres relative to fibres drawn on Earth.

This will contribute to advance knowledge of space fibre fabrication and help to enhance the optimisation of the entire process to reach its full potential.

The University of Adelaide state the drawing over eight kilometres of ZBLAN fibre on the ISS in just two weeks is a remarkable achievement.

Rob Loughan, chief executive officer, founder and chairman of Flawless Photonics said, “I am grateful to the University of Adelaide and especially to Heike and her team at ANFF-Optofab for their invaluable dedication of resources; without their support and our successful collaboration, we wouldn’t have achieved this historic milestone.”

The successful drawing of long continuous fibre opens possibilities for large-scale ZBLAN fibre production in space.

This is particularly exciting as ZBLAN is known for its minimal signal loss, making it ideal for long-distance telecommunication applications.

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