Sep 2, 2016 | By Tess

A joint team of researchers have developed a new and innovative method for 3D printing minuscule but still highly complex structures on the tips of optical fibers, which have diameters as small as 125 micrometers (about the width of a strand of human hair). The new method has not only proven to be one of the most precise and accurate  methods for imprinting complex 3D structures on optical fibers, but it is also much less expensive than traditional methods and has the potential to open up the doors for a number of applications, including bio sensors, optical trapping, and telecommunications.

The research team, which includes Giuseppe Calafiore, Alexander Koshelev, and researchers from aBeam Technologies Inc., the University of California at Berkeley, and the Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, recently published a study which outlines their novel method for nanoimprinting in the journal Nanotechnology.

Traditionally, producing complex optical components on the tip of a fiber requires expensive and extensive techniques, such as electron beam lithography or focused ion-beam milling. The researchers’ new method, however, which prints 3D structures directly onto the tiny fiber using an ultraviolet nanoimprint lithography system, presents a more time and cost efficient way of making 3D optical structures at such a small scale.

The 3D optical structures themselves essentially work to manipulate the light from the optical fiber, changing its phase and wavefront properties, for instance. Being able to precisely manipulate the optical light’s properties is essential to advancing such things as laser machining, lab-on-a-fiber, biomedical sensors, and more. In their report, the researchers demonstrated the new method by successfully imprinting a complex 3D beam splitter which was able to split the fiber’s optics into four separate and equally intense beams. To give an idea as to the scale and precision they were working with to create the 3D beam splitter, the process required the milling of 255 different height levels on a 5 x 5 µm2 structure.

Keiko Munechika, a researcher from aBeam Technologies who co-authored the study, explained to “The development of this new technology offers many advantages in terms of reproducibility, flexibility in the design of optical structures, as well as cost. Furthermore, this technology enables fabrication of complex optical structures comprised of material that has a high refractive index directly onto a fiber. This opens up a whole new range of fiber probes and devices, including optical tweezers and other immersion applications where other types of fiber lenses do not work.”

As mentioned, their ultraviolet nanoimprint lithography method could be the most precise in terms of lithographic accuracy and could open the doors for a number of new applications for fiber optics. For instance, as Munechika says, “There are some conventional applications, in which bulky, expensive and difficult-to-align optics can be instead integrated on a fiber. One such example is a vortex phase mask that produces beams that carry angular momentum. It is used in STED (stimulated emission depletion) microscopy and telecommunications. Integrating it on a fiber simply makes it much easier to use and reduces cost at the same time.”

Other more complex uses for the new method will also be explored, including the creation of near-field optical probes, fiber lenses for optical trapping, and various kinds of chemical sensors. With the success of their project, the researchers are hoping to expand their method and ultimately commercialize the fiber probes.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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