Feb 3, 1998

ZBLAN commercial potential


ZBLAN has great commercial potential

February 3, 1998: ZBLAN could open the window, literally, for expanded communications among a host of other products in the 21st century.

The highest payoff could be in optical fiber communications where glass threads carry millions of telephone conversations, video, and computer data. Telecommunications companies are investing heavily in optical fiber systems, including a "glass necklace" that will encircle the world replacing transoceanic cables, and eventually in neighborhood communications.

Planners can foresee the day when the expanding demand for communications will outstrip the bandwidth - the volume of data - that silica can handle. ZBLAN fibers offer two advantages. First, because they can transmit a broader spectrum, several lasers of different colors could use the same fiber at the same time. Second, they absorb less light (look through the edge of a window pane and you see how quickly light is extinguished), so fewer signal boosters (called repeaters) are needed in long-distance cables.

The commercial potential for ZBLAN is $2.5 billion a year in the communications industry.

The potential is good in smaller specialty markets. Laser surgery usually employs optical fibers to put the light on target since it is impractical to put the laser in a patient. Many promising new techniques use lasers that operate in visible light or even ultraviolet, colors that are absorbed by silica fibers. The annual sales potential here is $25 million, not including potential health benefits by having a more effective tool available to doctors. The same method could also be applied in manufacturing, including the ever-faster electronics that business and consumers always demand.

ZBLAN fibers could be used in a number of devices, such as optical gyroscopes that use the red or blue shift in fiber spools to measure a vehicle's turning, and in data links that resist nuclear radiation effects.

If ZBLAN production is significantly enhanced by low-g, then it could become a true "made in space" product. An automated system taking up one or two racks on International Space Station could pull long communications-grade fibers from a small supply of preforms that would be resupplied periodically by the Space Shuttle or other craft.

Fiber pulling in space has other applications, too. Tucker said that he has experimented with pulling fiber from materials similar to soil found in the lunar mare and highlands. This lunar fiber is black and useless as an optical carrier - but can be woven to make structural elements of a lunar base or a large spacecraft.

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Author: Dave Dooling
Curator: Bryan Walls
NASA Official: John M. Horack