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‘A Future Full of Light’

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BALTIMORE, May 2, 2011 — "Our world has become dependent on the reliable speed of light," retired Corning VP Donald Keck, one of the inventors of low-loss optical fiber, told attendees at the CLEO 2011 plenary session Monday night.

At the beginning of his talk, Keck pointed out that the first CLEO (Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics) conference he attended as a Corning employee was the very first CLEO conference, held in 1969 and then called CLEA (Conference on Laser Engineering and Applications).

Keck outlined the technological syzygy of the last 40 years or so, from the first Internet experiments in 1969 to the development of the first room temperature laser chip and the first low-loss optical fiber in 1970 and the first computer chip by Intel in 1971. Keck's own place in that history began when the British Post Office, which operated the British Telephone Network, sought a single-mode fiber with an attenuation of loss than 20 decibels per kilometer at a time when levels of 1000 dB/km were the standard.

Bob Maurer began working on the issue at Corning, then Corning Glass Works, and was later joined by Peter Schultz and Keck. They eventually created an optical waveguide using fused silica in the core and as cladding, with the core doped with titanium to make its refraction index higher.

"I'll never forget measuring our first low-loss fiber," Keck told the CLEO audience. "When the laser beam hit the fiber core, I was suddenly blinded by the returning laser light. I had never seen that before. My pulse rate increased — I knew we had something very special."

The loss on that fiber measured only 17 dB/km — soundly beating the previous best of about 100 dB/km — an achievement that Keck marked in his lab notebook with a triumphant "whoopee!!"

The team began publicizing their achievements in scientific papers in late 1970, but Applied Physics Letters rejected their paper because it "lacked believability," Keck said.

The Corning team continued to improve their fiber, and in 1972 revealed a less brittle product that didn't require heat treatment, making it the first truly practical fiber, he said, enabling fiber networks to become "the lifeblood of our society."

Looking ahead, Keck said he sees "a future full of light," but one that will have a huge need for bandwidths of petabits, not terabits. Life science applications will require huge data streams as well, with a millionfold bandwidth increase needed in the next 20 or 30 years. Keck predicted that by 2030 we will be carrying the data equivalent of the human genome on our cellphones.

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Melinda Rose, senior editor
May 2011
low-loss fiber
Optical fiber that transmits a greater percentage of input light than does high-loss step-index fiber. Low-loss fiber requires higher purity materials and a more sophisticated drawing process and thus is more expensive; it is used primarily in data communications.
Pertaining to optics and the phenomena of light.
Applied Physics LettersbandwidthBob MaurerBritish Post OfficeBusinessCLEACLEOCLEO 2011cleo11Conference on Laser Engineering and ApplicationsConference on Lasers and Electro-OpticsCorningCorning Glass WorksDonald Keckfiber opticsIntelInternetlow-loss fiberMarylandnetworksopticalPeter Schultz

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