Father of fiber-optics snags share of Nobel Physics Prize

Nobel Prize winner Charles Kao's 1966 breakthrough enabled transmission of light over long-distances via ultrapure glass fibers

Charles Kao, whose work in the 1960s laid the foundation for today’s long-distance fiber-optic networks, has won a share of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics.

Kao, sometimes referred to as the "father of fiber-optic communications," was formally honored by the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden "for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication"

The Shanghai-born Kao shares the award with Willard Boyle and George Smith, who invented imaging technology using a digital sensor dubbed a CCD (Charge-Coupled Device) that makes use of the photoelectric effect theorized by Albert Einstein under which light is transformed into electric signals.

More technical details on the prize winners’ efforts are outlined in this paper

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Kao’s breakthrough discovery in 1966 was to determine how to transmit light over long distances using ultrapure optical glass fibers. This would extend the distance of such transmissions to 62 miles vs. the mere 65 feet allowed under previous technology held back by impurities. The first ultrapure fiber was created in 1970.

According to the Nobel organization, if all the glass fibers in the world were put end to end, they would circle the globe more than 25,000 times.

Kao accomplished his work while with Standard Telecommunication Laboratories, Harlow, UK, which eventually became part of Nortel. He is now Chairman of ITX Services.

More recent research into fiber-optics has resulted in such findings as those by Alcatel-Lucent researchers who multiplied the speed of the fastest undersea cables by 10 and by researchers from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology who have come up with a way to use the same sort of fiber-optic cables used for telecom to detect tunnel excavation at depths of more than 60 feet. 

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