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10 Emerging Technologies That Will Change Your World

(Page 10 of 11)

Microfluidic Optical Fibers

The blazing-fast Internet access of the future-imagine downloading movies in seconds-might just depend on a little plumbing in the network. Tiny droplets of fluid inside fiber-optic channels could improve the flow of data-carrying photons, speeding transmission and improving reliability. Realizing this radical idea is the goal of University of Illinois physicist John Rogers, whose prototype devices, called microfluidic optical fibers, may be the key to superfast delivery of everything from e-mail to Web-based computer programs, once “bandwidth” again becomes the mantra.

Rogers began exploring fluid-filled fibers more than two years ago as a researcher at Lucent Technologies’ Bell Labs. While the optical fibers that carry today’s phone and data transmissions consist of glass tubing that is flexible but solid, Rogers employs fibers bored through with microscopic channels, ranging from one to 300 micrometers in diameter, depending on their use. While Rogers didn’t invent the fibers, he and his team showed that pumping tiny amounts of various fluids into them-and then controlling the expansion, contraction, and movement of these liquid “plugs”-causes the optical properties of the fibers to change. Structures such as tiny heating coils printed directly on the fiber precisely control the size, shape, and position of the plugs. Modifying the plugs’ properties enables them to perform critical functions, such as correcting error-causing distortions and directing data flows more efficiently, thus boosting bandwidth far more cheaply than is possible today.

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