Stretching it a bit – Nonlinear Fibre Optics
The following is a prize-winning entry in the competition “Excellence in Communication” organised by Aston University in 2012. You can find all the prize winning entries here.
Imagine that all materials are made of springs, and networks of springs. For example, if you give a blob of jelly a nudge, it wobbles around a bit and then it relaxes. Remarkably, light nudges all materials too, but at the atomic scale. We don’t perceive it as motion of the object, but we perceive it as the colour of the object. The question now is what happens if light, instead of a gentle nudge, gives the material a vigorous shake-up?
Well, interesting things happen.
Imagine you are playing with a paddle pong. If you hit the pong softly, all is hunky-dory. But if you hit the pong a bit too hard, you wouldn’t be able to exactly predict how the pong would behave – the rubber band starts to respond nonlinearly to the applied forces.
Nonlinear behaviour of a simple pendulum – The black pendulum is the small angle approximation, and the lighter gray pendulum (initially hidden behind) is the exact solution. For a large initial angle, the difference between the small angle approximation (black) and the exact solution (light gray) becomes apparent almost immediately – from https://www.acs.psu.edu/drussell/Demos/Pendulum/Pendulum.html
Essentially the same happens with atoms and light. When light interacts with atoms, it sets its electrons into oscillation. In the study of nonlinear optics, we hit the atoms a bit harder than usual and see how the atomic springs interact with light. Our paddle though, is a cool laser.
But even if we have a laser, to hit the atoms hard enough we need a lot of energy focused in one place. We could use a magnifying glass (or a system of lenses) in principle to obtain a tight focus, but the rays would diverge beyond it, and the energy density will fall.
Optical fibres help us to walk around this hurdle. These fibres confine light within themselves by the principle of total internal reflection, but with two added advantages. One – the light can travel inside the fibre for kilometres without losing much of its energy. Two – and more importantly – it is confined to dimensions of the order of 7 to 8 microns – ten times smaller than the diameter of the human hair.
Thus we have a medium in which we can confine a lot of light energy in a tiny space, and then make it travel for kilometres. This increases the interaction of light with the medium. So we ‘pump in’ light from a high power laser through one end of a very long optical fibre, and study what happens to it after it travels a substantial distance within it.
This essentially is the study of nonlinear fibre optics. It started with the question ‘what if…?’, yet it has resulted in many real world applications. For example, it is possible to amplify a weak signal of one colour in a fibre, by making it interact with a stronger light signal of a different colour – a technique that is used in fibre communications. By pumping in a bit more energy than usual, one can produce light of different colours (called higher harmonic generation), or even a super-continuum of colours (as shown in the image at the top of this blog), spanning tens of nanometers.
Research into nonlinear fibre optics has also spawned fast, pulsed output fibre lasers, which are routinely used in surgery and industrial applications. At Aston University, we study the nonlinear phenomena in optical fibres in depth, with state of the art equipment. Quite literally, by pushing the limits we hope to tap into Nature’s hidden secrets, and inch closer to understanding why things are the way they are.
Nonlinear Optics Fibre Optics – Stretching it a bit by Srikanth Sugavanam is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.