Startup Moves Fibers, not Mountains

German startup AIFOtec claims to have a nifty way of making small optical switches based on moving fibers

August 29, 2001

3 Min Read
Startup Moves Fibers, not Mountains

German startup AIFOtec AG is eschewing the exotic and sticking with simple designs, at least when it comes to optical switches.

In an announcement today, the startup revealed how its 1x2 fiber optic switch works (see AIFOtec Makes a Switch).

AIFOtec is building optical switches that are ideally suited to protection switching, it says. It meets the basic criteria for this application, having low optical losses and the ability to switch in a few milliseconds. There's another reason the switch is particularly well suited to protection switching -- it is based on a "latching" design. In other words, it doesn't require any power to stay switched.

The market for wee switches like these is thought to be worth more than the market for large "matrix" switches -- ones with multiple input and output ports -- at least for the next five years, according to a study by ElectroniCast Corp. (see Optical Switches: $16 Billion Worth?).

The mechanism of AIFOtec's switch is based on -- shock! horror! -- bulk optics. The input fiber sits in a carriage containing a magnet, and each output fiber has a solenoid next to it. When voltage is applied to one of the solenoids, it attracts the magnet and moves the fiber. Light then passes directly from input fiber to output fiber.

Latching is achieved because the magnet sticks to the iron core of the solenoid, even if the voltage is removed. The fiber can only be moved again by energizing the other solenoid.

The challenging part of the design lies in the alignment of the input and output fibers. To keep losses low, the fibers need to be aligned to within about 2 microns laterally, and within 1.7 degrees in angle. This is achieved by using micromachined V-grooves. Also, the entire assembly is immersed in an index matching fluid. The result: Loss is guaranteed to be less than 1 dB, the company claims.

It doesn't sound revolutionary, but AIFOtec claims that the customers sampling it are very happy. The proposed price of the device is $300 per unit in quantities of "thousands", according to Ron Fulton, director of technical marketing for AIFOtec's U.S. subsidiary.

The main competitors for AIFOtec's switch will be the manufacturers of optomechanical switches like JDS Uniphase Inc. (Nasdaq: JDSU; Toronto: JDU). To really make its mark, AIFOtec will have to deliver a higher performance and lower cost, compared to incumbent switches, says one industry insider who did not wish to be named.

Bulk optics appears to be enjoying a bit of a revival on the quiet. Several startups are trying to cash in on the optical switching market with higher performance versions of this crusty old technology. Optoplex Corp. is a case in point. It makes tunable optical add/drop modules based on moving fibers.

Another example is Creo Products Inc. (Nasdaq: CREO; Toronto: CRE), which, like AIFOtec, is using magnets to move fibers -- in this instance in combination with lenses to make an optical crossconnect (see From Graphics to Optics).

Other companies are trying to replicate moving fiber technology on a smaller scale, using flexible waveguides attached to a semiconductor or glass wafer. Opsitech in France and OlanTech in Korea are both pursuing this approach.

— Pauline Rigby, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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