Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Packing Hundreds of Sensors into a Single Optical Fiber for use in Harsh Environments


New technology for gas flow measurement sets temperature record of 800 degrees Celsius -- ideal for use in deep drilling operations, nuclear reactor cores and outer space

By fusing together the concepts of active fiber sensors and high-temperature fiber sensors, a team of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh has created an all-optical high-temperature sensor for gas flow measurements that operates at record-setting temperatures above 800 degrees Celsius.

An artist's rendering of the fiber optic flow sensor. The glowing red sections along the optical fiber are the sensors--hundreds of these sensors can be packed into a single fiber. Image credit: Kevin Chen, University of Pittsburgh.

This technology is expected to find industrial sensing applications in harsh environments ranging from deep geothermal drill cores to the interiors of nuclear reactors to the cold vacuum of space missions, and it may eventually be extended to many others.

The team describes their all-optical approach in a paper published today in The Optical Society’s (OSA) journal Optics Letters. They successfully demonstrated simultaneous flow/temperature sensors at 850 C, which is a 200 C improvement on an earlier notable demonstration of MEMS-based sensors by researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The basic concept of the new approach involves integrating optical heating elements, optical sensors, an energy delivery cable and a signal cable within a single optical fiber. Optical power delivered by the fiber is used to supply energy to the heating element, while the optical sensor within the same fiber measures the heat transfer from the heating element and transmits it back.

“We call it a 'smart optical fiber sensor powered by in-fiber light',” said Kevin P. Chen, an associate professor and the Paul E. Lego Faculty Fellow in the University of Pittsburg’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

The team’s work expands the use of fiber-optic sensors well beyond traditional applications of temperature and strain measurements. “Tapping into the energy carried by the optical fiber enables fiber sensors capable of performing much more sophisticated and multifunctional types of measurements that previously were only achievable using electronic sensors,” Chen said.

In microgravity situations, for example, it’s difficult to measure the level of liquid hydrogen fuel in tanks because it doesn’t settle at the bottom of the tank. It’s a challenge that requires the use of many electronic sensors—a problem Chen initially noticed years ago while visiting NASA, which was the original inspiration to develop a more streamlined and efficient approach.

“For this type of microgravity situation, each sensor requires wires, a.k.a. ‘leads,’ to deliver a sensing signal, along with a shared ground wire,” explained Chen. “So it means that many leads—often more than 40—are necessary to get measurements from the numerous sensors. I couldn’t help thinking there must be a better way to do it.”

It turned out, there is. The team looked to optical-fiber sensors, which are one of the best sensor technologies for use in harsh environments thanks to their extraordinary multiplexing capabilities and immunity to electromagnetic interference. And they were able to pack many of these sensors into a single fiber to reduce or eliminate the wiring problems associated with having numerous leads involved.

“Another big challenge we addressed was how to achieve active measurements in fiber,” Chen said. “If you study optical fiber, it’s a cable for signal transmission but one that can also be used for energy delivery—the same optical fiber can deliver both signal and optical power for active measurements. It drastically improves the sensitivity, functionality, and agility of fiber sensors without compromising the intrinsic advantages of fiber-optic sensors. That’s the essence of our work.”

Based on the same technology, highly sensitive chemical sensors can also be developed for cryogenic environments. “The optical energy in-fiber can be tapped to locally heated in-fiber chemical sensors to enhance its sensitivity,” Chen said. “In-fiber optical power can also be converted into ultrasonic energy, microwave or other interesting applications because tens or hundreds of smart sensors can be multiplexed within a single fiber. It just requires placing one fiber in the gas flow stream—even in locations with strong magnetic interference.”

Next, the team plans to explore common engineering devices that are often taken for granted and search for ways to enhance them. “For fiber sensors, we typically view the fiber as a signal-carrying cable. But if you look at it from a fiber sensor perspective, does it really need to be round or a specific size? Is it possible that another size or shape might better suit particular applications? As a superior optical cable, is it also possible to carry other types of energy along the fibers for long-distance and remote sensing?” Chen noted. “These are questions we’ll address.”
Paper: “Fiber-optic flow sensors for high-temperature-environment operation up to 800°C,” R. Chen at al., Optics Letters, Vol. 39, Issue 13, pp. 3966-3969 (2014).
EDITOR’S NOTE: An artist’s rendering of the sensor is available to members of the media upon request. Contact Angela Stark,
About Optics Letters
Published by The Optical Society (OSA), Optics Letters offers rapid dissemination of new results in all areas of optics with short, original, peer-reviewed communications. Optics Letters covers the latest research in optical science, including optical measurements, optical components and devices, atmospheric optics, biomedical optics, Fourier optics, integrated optics, optical processing, optoelectronics, lasers, nonlinear optics, optical storage and holography, optical coherence, polarization, quantum electronics, ultrafast optical phenomena, photonic crystals, and fiber optics. This journal, edited by Xi-Cheng Zhang of the University of Rochester and published twice each month, is where readers look for the latest discoveries in optics. Visit
About OSA
Founded in 1916, The Optical Society (OSA) is the leading professional society for scientists, engineers, students and business leaders who fuel discoveries, shape real-world applications and accelerate achievements in the science of light. Through world-renowned publications, meetings and membership programs, OSA provides quality research, inspired interactions and dedicated resources for its extensive global network of professionals in optics and photonics. For more information, visit

Angela Stark | Eurek Alert!
Further information:

Further reports about: OSA Packing Sensors environments fiber heating measurements optics sensing temperature

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht OU-led team discovers rare, newborn tri-star system using ALMA
27.10.2016 | University of Oklahoma

nachricht First results of NSTX-U research operations
26.10.2016 | DOE/Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

How nanoscience will improve our health and lives in the coming years

27.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

OU-led team discovers rare, newborn tri-star system using ALMA

27.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

'Neighbor maps' reveal the genome's 3-D shape

27.10.2016 | Life Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>