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Australian research into “space glass”

Light shining through fibre optics

Fibre optics technology could be revolutionised by Queensland University of Technology space research.

RESEARCHERS AT THE Queensland University of Technology’s (QUT) Science and Engineering Faculty are about to experiment with a special kind of glass made under weightless conditions.

Called ZBLAN, it forms improperly under gravity but could theoretically be made into a super-fibre in the absence of gravity.

Dr Martin Castillo, researcher for QUT’s micro-gravity drop tower, will work with the US Air Force to conduct first-of-its-kind researchinto ZBLAN.

ZBLAN glass made in microgravity and normal gravity

ZBLAN glass made in microgravity (left) and normal gravity (right). The difference is obvious.

“This glass contains a variety of heavy metals that upon cooling create internal stresses which leads to crystallization of the material, an undesired property for glass,” said Dr Castillo. “The synthesis of this material in the absence of gravity has the ability to overcome this barrier.”

Theoretically, ZBLAN fibres would have the lowest amount of signal loss of any optical known substance. This means signals could be sent over much longer distances before needing to be boosted by power-hungry amplifiers. It would also provide increased bandwidths.

“Although this glass has been made in a few places, no one has yet figured out how to draw it into a fibre,” Dr Castillo said.

“I previously spent two years working in Japan trying to produce this glass via gas levitation and with a fibre pulling apparatus in zero gravity and was unsuccessful,” he added. “Now I think we’ve been able to formulate very new and different techniques to that used by anyone in the world.”

Initial experiments will be conducted using QUT’s drop tower. A drop tower is a vertical column, from the top of which samples can be dropped…gaining a few seconds of weightlessness—or more properly, “microgravity”—on the way down.

For the ZBLAN drops, samples will experience about 2.1 seconds of microgravity.

Left: Dr Martin Castillo at the base of QUT's micro-gravity tower. Right: Two views inside the drop tower.

Left: Dr Martin Castillo at the base of QUT's micro-gravity tower. Right: Two views inside the drop tower.

This is just a foretaste though. Dr Castillo intends to conduct further experiments aboard NASA’s “Vomit Comet”, an aircraft that flies parabolic trajectories to produce a short period of microgravity.

And following that, a further experiment will be launched into space in 2013 aboard a US Air Force suborbital rocket. This will be the first QUT experiment to be lofted above the atmosphere.

“In order to stay at the leading edge of the synthesis of specialised glass, all traditional methods have to be abandoned,” Dr Castillo said.

Story by Jonathan Nally. Photos courtesy QUT / NASA.

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