Subwavelength-diameter optical fibre

Subwavelength-diameter optical fibre
A subwavelength-diameter fibre wraps light around human hair.

Subwavelength-diameter optical fibre (SDF or SDOF) is an optical fibre whose diameter is less than the wavelength of the light being propagated through the fibre. An SDOF usually consists of long thick parts (same as conventional optical fibres) at both ends, transition regions (a.k.a. tapers), where the fibre diameter gradually decreases down to the subwavelength value, and a subwavelength-diameter waist, which is the main acting part of an SDOF.



There is no general agreement on how these optical elements are to be called, different groups preferring to emphasize different properties of such fibres, sometimes even using different terms. The names in use include:

  • subwavelength waveguide[1], subwavelength optical wire[2], subwavelength-diameter silica wire[3], subwavelength diameter fibre taper[4][5]
  • (photonic) wire waveguide[6][7], photonic wire[8][9][10], photonic nanowire[11][12][13], optical nanowires[14], optical fibre nanowires[15]
  • tapered (optical) fibre[16][17][18][19], fibre taper[20]
  • submicron-diameter silica fibre[21][22]
  • ultra-thin optical fibres[23]
  • optical nanofibre [24]
  • optical microfibres [25]
  • submicron fibre waveguides [26]

The term waveguide can be applied not only to fibres, but also to other waveguiding structures such as silicon photonic subwavelength waveguides[27]. The term submicron is often synonymic to subwavelength in this case, taking into account that the majority of experiments are carried out with the light with the wavelength between 0.8 and 1.6 µm[11]; however for other wavelengths this may not be true. All the names including the prefix nano- are somewhat misleading, since it is usually applied to objects with dimensions on the scale of nanometers or tens of nanometers (cf. nanoparticle, nanotechnology). The characteristic behaviour of the SDOF—high intensity of the electromagnetic field both inside and outside the fibre, maximum confinement of light in transversal cross-section—appears when the fibre diameter is about half of the wavelength of light. That is why the term subwavelength is the most appropriate for these objects.

SDF features

High power in the evanescent field

The main peculiarity of an SDF is that in the waist region, a significant part of the light's power propagates outside the fibre. Rigorously, this follows from the application of Maxwell's equations to a waveguide with circular cross-section.[28] In a simplified way, this may be explained by the following. Light is guided in waveguides by total internal reflection (TIR) occurring on the interface between the waveguide and surrounding media. During TIR, the light intensity does not fall down to zero immediately at the interface, but decreases exponentially (vanishes) in the adjacent medium (the light field outside the waveguide is called the evanescent field). The depth of penetration of light during TIR depends on the exact configuration, but it is usually greater than or on the order of the wavelength of light.

An SDF has a diameter which is smaller than or on the order of the wavelength of light. Since an SDF is also a waveguide and thus light propagation is physically explained by the same fundamental reasons as TIR, the light, guided by an SDF, penetrates into surrounding media (air or vacuum) to the depth of about one wavelength or more. However, while in the case of conventional waveguides this depth is very small compared to the waveguide dimensions and so only a negligible amount of energy propagates outside the waveguide, in the case of SDF the volume occupied by the evanescent field is bigger than the volume of the SDF itself. Therefore the evanescent field of an SDF contains a significant portion of the whole light energy propagating along the fibre.


An SDF is usually created by tapering a commercial optical fibre. Special pulling machines accomplish the process.

An optical fibre usually consists of a core, a cladding and a protective coating. Before pulling a fibre, its coating is removed (the fibre is stripped). Then the bare fibre is fixed at two ends on the movable translation stages of the pulling machine. The middle of the fibre between the stages is then heated with a flame or a laser beam and at the same time the translation stages move in the opposite directions. The glass melts and the fibre is elongated so that its diameter decreases. The flame or laser beam usually also moves in order to obtain waist of significant length and constant thickness.

Using the described method, waists of 1...10 mm in length and diameters down to 100 nm are obtained.


Being extremely thin, an SDF is also extremely fragile. Therefore, an SDF is usually mounted onto a special frame immediately after pulling and is never detached from this frame.

Another issue is dust particles which may adsorb to the surface of an SDF. If significant laser power is coupled into the fibre, dust particles will scatter light in the evanescent field, heat up and may thermally destroy the waist. In order to prevent this, SDF are pulled and used in dust-free environments such as flowboxes or vacuum chambers.

Light propagation in SDF

Light propagation in an SDF is governed by different propagation equations as in a usual optical fibre. See [29] and [30].


  • Sensors
  • Nonlinear optics
  • Fibre couplers
  • Atom trapping and guiding

Research groups working with SDF

See also


  1. ^ Foster, Gaeta, “Ultra-low threshold supercontinuum generation in sub-wavelength waveguides”, Opt. Express 12, 3137 (2004)
  2. ^ Y. Jung, G. Brambilla, and D. J. Richardson, “Broadband single-mode operation of standard optical fibers by using a sub-wavelength optical wire filter,” Opt. Express 16, 14661–14667 (2008)
  3. ^ Tong et al., “Subwavelength-diamter silica wires for low-loss optical wave guiding”, Nature 426, 816 (2003)
  4. ^ Opt. Express 15, 10324 (2007)
  5. ^ Lei Zhang, Fuxing Gu, Jingyi Lou, Xuefeng Yin, and Limin Tong, "Fast detection of humidity with a subwavelength-diameter fiber taper coated with gelatin film," Opt. Express 16, 13349-13353 (2008)
  6. ^ Liang et al., “Ultrafast all-optical switching by cross-absorption modulation in silicon wire waveguides”, Opt. Express 13, 7298 (2005)
  7. ^ Espinola et al., “C-band wavelength conversion in silicon photonic wire waveguides”, Opt. Express 13, 4341 (2005)
  8. ^ Lize et al., “Microstructured optical fiber photonic wires with subwavelength core diameter“, Opt. Express 12, 3209 (2004)
  9. ^ Zheltikov, “Gaussian-mode analysis of waveguide-enchanced Kerr-type nonlinearity of optical fibers and photonic wires”, JOSA B 22, 1100 (2005)
  10. ^ Konorov, “High-order modes of photonic wires excited by the Cherenkov emission of solitons”, Laser Phys. Lett. 2, 258 (2005)
  11. ^ a b Foster et al., “Nonlinear optics in photonic nanowires”, Opt. Express 16, 1300 (2008)
  12. ^ Wolchover et al., “High nonlinearity glass photonic crystal nanowires”, Opt. Express 15, 829 (2007)
  13. ^ Tong et al., “Photonic nanowires directly drawn from bulk glasses”, Opt. Express 14, 82 (2006)
  14. ^ Siviloglou et al., “Enchanced third-order nonlinear effects in optical AlGaAs nanowires”, Opt. Express 14, 9377 (2006)
  15. ^ Optical Fibre Nanowires and Related Devices Group, University of Southampton
  16. ^ Dumais et al., “Enchanced selph-phase modulation in tapered fibres”, Opt. Lett. 18, 1996 (1993)
  17. ^ Cordeiro, “Engineering the dispersion of tapered fibers for supercontinuum generation with a 1064 nm pump laser”, Opt. Lett. 30, 1980 (2005)
  18. ^ Dudley, Coen, “Numerical simulations and coherence properties of supercontinuum generation in photonic crystal and tapered optical fibers”, IEEE J. Sel. Top. Quantum Elctron. 8, 651 (2002)
  19. ^ Kolesik et al., “Simulation of femtosecond pulse propagation in sub-micron diameter tapered fibers”, Appl. Phys. B 79, 293 (2004)
  20. ^ Wadsworth et al., “Supercontinuum generation in photonic crystal fibers and optical fiber tapers: a novel light source”, JOSA B 19, 2148 (2002)
  21. ^ Shi et al., “Fabrication of submicron-diameter silica fibers using electric strip heater”, Opt. Express 14, 5055 (2006)
  22. ^ Gattas et al., “Supercontinuum generation in submicrometer diameter silica fibers”, Opt. Express 12, 776 (2004)
  23. ^ G. Sagué, A. Baade, and A. Rauschenbeutel, “Blue-detuned evanescent field surface traps for neutral atoms based on mode interference in ultra-thin optical fibres,” New J. Phys. 10 113008 (2008).
  24. ^ Nayak et al., “Optical nanofiber as an efficient tool for manipulating and probing atomic fluorescence”, Opt. Express 15, 5431 (2007)
  25. ^ Xu, Horak, Brambilla, “Optical microfiber coil resonator refractometric sensor,” Opt. Express 15, 7888-7893 (2007)
  26. ^ Leon-Saval et al., “Supercontinuum generation in submicron fibre waveguides”, Opt. Express 12, 2864-2869 (2004)
  27. ^ Koos et al., Opt. Express 15, 5976 (2007)
  28. ^ A. W. Snyder, J. Love. Optical Waveguide Theory. Springer, 1983
  29. ^ Tr. X. Tran and F. Biancalana, "An accurate envelope equation for light propagation in photonic nanowires: new nonlinear effects," Optics Express 17, 17934-17949 (2009).
  30. ^ F. Biancalana, Tr. X. Tran, S. Stark, M. A. Schmidt, and P. S. Russell, "Emergence of geometrical optical nonlinearities in photonic crystal fiber nanowires," Physical Review Letters 105, 093904 (2010).

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