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20. Fiber Optics - Nifty 50

Fiber optic strands

Optical fiber is a critical component in the ongoing communications revolution, especially with the emergence of the Internet and other high-speed data applications.

The cable TV industry, long-distance telephone services and computer networks are the top three industries using and relying on advances in fiber optics.

Over 300 million kilometers of fiber have been installed worldwide, enough to circle the globe 1,000 times. A single optical fiber is able to transmit more information than thousands of copper wires, making it cheap and efficient.

Early research

While industry leaders Corning and AT&T played lead roles, NSF-funded research in solid-state physics, ceramics/glass engineering and other areas was part of the knowledge base in the late 1960s, when the initial research and development on optical fibers was done.

Federally funded science and engineering activities played a role, although somewhat indirect, by helping to train doctoral scientists and engineers in industrial research and development on optical fibers and related components such as semiconductor lasers and by supporting basic research at materials engineering centers.

According to SRI International of Arlington, VA, a private research firm, NSF limited its organized effort to support optical communications research to two areas with strong academic bases: integrated electro-optics and network theory.

Thus, NSF played an important role in supporting research relevant to the development of the nonfiber components and devices needed in a fiber-optic communication system. Without these components, advances in the fiber alone could not have produced the communications systems that we enjoy today.

Original publication date: April 2000

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