How fiber-optics works
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    How fiber-optics works


    Photo: Fiber-optic cables are thin enough to bend, taking the light signals inside in curved paths too. Picture courtesy of NASA Glenn Research Center (NASA-GRC).Outdoor optical fiber cable

    Light travels down a fiber-optic cable by bouncing repeatedly off the walls. Each tiny photon (particle of light) bounces down the pipe like a bobsleigh going down an ice run. Now you might expect a beam of light, traveling in a clear glass pipe, simply to leak out of the edges. But if light hits glass at a really shallow angle (less than 42 degrees), it reflects back in again—as though the glass were really a mirror. This phenomenon is called total internal reflection. It's one of the things that keeps light inside the pipe.
    The other thing that keeps light in the pipe is the structure of the cable, which is made up of two separate parts. The main part of the cable—in the middle—is called the core and that's the bit the light travels through. Wrapped around the outside of the core is another layer of glass called the cladding. The cladding's job is to keep the light signals inside the core. It can do this because it is made of a different type of glass to the core. (More technically, the cladding has a lower refractive index.)
    Optical fibers carry light signals down them in what are called modes. That sounds technical but it just means different ways of traveling: a mode is simply the path that a light beam follows down the fiber. One mode is to go straight down the middle of the fiber. Another is to bounce down the fiber at a shallow angle. Other modes involve bouncing down the fiber at other angles, more or less steep.

    Artworks: Above: Light travels in different ways in single-mode and multi-mode fibers. Below: Inside a typical single-mode fiber cable (not drawn to scale). The thin core is surrounded by cladding roughly ten times bigger in diameter, a plastic outer coating (about twice the diameter of the cladding), some strengthening fibers made of a tough material such as Kevlar®, with a protective outer jacket on the outside.

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