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Love at first light

Posted: 04 Sep 2006     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Nitin Goel  optical fibre  fibre optic  Raman  core suction 

Dr. Nitin K. GoelDr. Nitin K. Goel is a product engineering manager at Tyco Electronics Corp., Fibre Optics Business Unit, Bangalore.

Goel and two other researchers found a way to manufacture optical fibres with high Raman gain coefficient in small fibre lengths.

Goel is currently involved in fibre optic product development for the Indian defence and other local markets.

A course titled "Lasers and applications" at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)–Roorkee, was Dr. Nitin K. Goel's first brush with optical fibre technology. It was love at first "light": the course, which introduced optical fibres, lit up intense interest in Goel.

And he still speaks passionately of them: "I have always been interested in playing with light, light emitting diodes (LEDs) and laser diodes (LDs). Being able to route light from one place to another through optical fibre was amazing. I was astonished to know that a pair of hair-thin optical fibres is capable of carrying all the phone calls of the world at one time—an almost infinite capacity. In the medical field, optical fibres go inside our body and send images out. It is worth appreciating the numerous types of sensors based on optical fibre available for structural monitoring of bridges, gas monitoring and biomedical detections."

"I was also excited to learn about cars that come equipped with optical fibre wiring inside for transmitting information and entertainment," recalled Goel. "Optical coherence tomography using optical fibre can make it possible to scan our brain with much higher resolution. You can also charge batteries of pacemakers using optical fibres. You name an area and you will find optical fibre being used in some way or the other."

Goel chose fibre optic technology as his specialised area of work. He undertook another masters degree course, M. Tech in "Optoelectronics and optical communication" at IIT Delhi, and then went on to do a doctoral programme in fibre optics at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), USA.

The quest
—>"Raman amplifier is an optical amplifier based on the Raman Effect in optical fibres, and is gaining high interest in recent long haul systems. The basic idea of the research was to manufacture optical fibres with high Raman gain coefficient in smaller fibre lengths, as standard fibres require a few kilometres of optical fibres to observe any usable Raman gain," explained Goel.

Goel and his research colleagues—Jong-Cook Kim from South Korea and Sameer Arabasi from Palestine—tried various conventional techniques for four years to make fibres with different types of materials for almost four years, without getting closer to the desired results. Their approach was to develop a fibre with high Raman gain class core inside a silica cladding.

Mounting challenges
The team's guiding professor left Virginia Tech and was only accessible via telephone and e-mail. Then Goel developed a painful medical condition. His continuing health problems prompted his doctor in India, also a close friend, to advise him to return to India within the week.

Not wanting to leave his Ph.D. unfinished, Goel decided to complete the experiments during that week, and then carry out the theoretical portion from India. "That one week was the turning point of my research life," said Goel. "I forgot all pain, and was in the lab all days and nights."

Dr. Nitin K. Goel
Nitin Goel using core suction to make the preform: "I faced hurdles along the way, but I am still standing tall. I gained some, lost some, but I guess that's what life is about. I still have a lot to do, many things to finish."

The breakthrough came almost towards the end of Goel's Ph.D. programme in July 2005. The team found success in a method where molten high Raman gain core glass is pulled into a silica tube, and then drawn into a fibre. Goel named this technique "core-suction." "When I saw the first fibre guiding the light," said Goel, "I could not believe my eyes. It was at 3a.m., and I was eager to call my professor. And I realised after developing these fibres that we had so much to research on. There was scope to do a lot of new things with these fibres that no one had ever tried before."

"The key advantage of the new technique is that it is simple, inexpensive, and enables you to make different types of fibres with different core materials, which otherwise would be too difficult and expensive to make," said Goel. "These fibres can be very useful in sensors, biomedical imaging/treatments and telecommunications."

Goel stayed on in the United States, carried his research further and finally wrote the thesis in a month.

Spirit of an experimenter
Goel believes it is his spirit as an experimenter that contributed in large part to the success of the project, something that went well with his professor, Dr. Roger Stolen, a pioneer in fibre optics. Goel also greatly values hands on experience. He believes that these attributes prompted his professor to allow him run the fibre manufacturing centre.

Running the manufacturing centre was quite similar to running an industry without support. Goel had to do everything from operations to maintenance to cleaning. This also helped the project.

"The idea of using this technique always existed but not many wanted to spend time doing experimental work or running the big fibre manufacturing machines," Goel said. I worked like a technician, ran and maintained the fibre drawing tower, and was finally successful in manufacturing some novel fibres. I characterised, analysed, and used those fibres to make optical amplifiers."

Goel also attributes his success to the research guides Roger Stolen and Gary Pickrell, who inspired him as much as they guided him with his research. "Professor Stolen has the highest recognition award in fibre optics, apart from being a down-to-earth and helpful human being. And Professor Pickrell is a great glass scientist," Goel said.

Stolen seems to have left a deep impression on Goel's mind, who he feels, inspired him to be a better human being and researcher. Goel said, "He was always available to discuss any problem, and the thing I admired in him was his strong belief in: 'There is always a way'.

"Whenever we had some problem in understanding the principle or operation of some instrument, he would say, 'Let's call the inventor,' and he had a long list of such friends. It was simply amazing to work with him in the lab, and enjoy science and engineering."

Recognition of achievement
The recognition of his efforts came after he returned to India in November 2005, with articles being published in journals and news publications. Goel and his team filed a provisional patent application for the technique in 2005, and the final patent application in 2006.

While there were several job offers including one from a company in California that wanted exactly the same fibre that Goel developed during his research project. The company intended to use the optic fibres for making lasers that NASA would use to establish an interferometer in space. Goel gave the company some of optical fibres he had developed during the project but the declined the offer to return to India partly because he wanted to develop something for his country.

"I feel India has a scarcity of good experimentalists mainly in high technology areas, such as fibre optics," said Goel. "I went to the United States, gained some knowledge and came back to India wanting to use that knowledge for India."

Goel admits he lowered his expectations upon returning to India, given the limited opportunity for experimental research here. He defined his expectations as a good work environment, good attitude of people, and some appreciation for research.

He betrayed some disappointment when he said, "I was expecting to do some development work, if not research, as I can understand the budget constraints. And, then, in industry setups, one has to back this with a strong business case. I do not think I am that successful in doing what I wanted to do, but I realise there is a difference between the functioning of an industry, and a research institution," he rationalised.

Close to his passion
Goel's passion for light keeps him close to developments in the optical fibre technology through online news magazines, articles and journals. His seek out indirect methods to remain connected to the field.

"I may not be involved in research directly, but I am still very much involved with fibre optic technology. I keep myself updated through magazines and through my interaction with my friends globally. I also visit customer premises and government labs, understand their requirements and suggest solutions," he said.

Goel is voluntarily guiding a post-doctorate student at Clemson University to further pursue his research, providing suggestions and ideas for carrying out experiments.

"There is a lot one can do with fibres and lasers in the body. I am confident that a day will come, when we will be able to image each and every cell of the body without harming the tissues," he predicted. "...and optic fibre will penetrate homes very soon. It is just a matter of time, and one day you will see fibre coming to the homes of the average man in India," he said.

He feels military applications is another area where optical fibre is needed in India. "You can make optical fibre suits that can monitor physiological parameters of the soldiers in the battlefield," he said. "Fibre guided missiles can also be developed. Automotives, aeroplanes and ships can have optical fibre networks installed inside them."

- By Krishnan Sivaramakrishnan
EE Times India

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