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Optical fiber has bright future in S.C.

Clemson University's Center for Optical Materials Science and Engineering Technologies
Clemson University’s Center for Optical Materials Science and Engineering Technologies is identifying new uses for optical fibers in the medical field and others. (Photo/Provided)

By Liz Segrist
Published Jan. 9, 2012

Optical fiber technology and its many applications can be a source of economic growth for South Carolina.

Around 100 photonics-based companies already are creating an industry cluster that stretches across the Carolinas.

“It’s an industry with tremendous growth potential for our region,” said John Ballato, a Clemson University materials science and engineering professor. “The expanding market for optical fiber and other photonics-related technologies offers numerous possibilities for new high-paying and homegrown jobs.”

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Fiber optics technology makes use of glass or plastic fiber designed to guide light along its length. A wide range of sectors benefit from fiber optics technology, including telecommunications, medical care, the military, energy, telephone and computer communications, heat sensors and light fixtures.

“Light in some ways has a publicity problem because it can become so ubiquitous that we forgot how we use it,” Ballato said.

Regional industry

North and South Carolina have more than 100 photonics-based companies, with about a fourth of them in South Carolina. The majority are near the Research Triangle Park and Charlotte in North Carolina.

“Between Atlanta and Charlotte, there’s a huge fiber optic community all along this corridor of I-85,” said Duane Dinkel, president of OpTek Systems in Greenville.

North Carolina is about 30 years ahead of the game for the optical fiber industry compared to South Carolina.

“South Carolina is fairly new in some ways to this,” Ballato said.

North Carolina’s head start therefore increased the amount of jobs within the state, fueled in part by the universities in the state. Clemson University and the University of South Carolina are following suit with research in the field.

South Carolina has unique capabilities with people, labs, universities and equipment, and Ballato believes it will drive the growth of companies and jobs in South Carolina over time.

The optical fiber industry can be seen as a regional strength and marketed that way, rather than a competition between states.

“All of the optical fiber work in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia is complementary,” Ballato said. “We have enough competition fighting with other countries; we don’t need fighting across counties or state lines.”

Technology applications

Optical fiber technology can be used to increase efficiencies in overhead lighting or to improve cars’ energy consumption. Automotive companies can benefit by increasing precision of welding production processes. The military benefits by using lasers or lights from optical fiber technology to sense biological or chemical agents nearby or to shoot down missiles.

“Whether you’re talking offensively or defensively, it can be done optically so people don’t have to be there,” said Ballato, the director of Clemson’s COMSET, or the Center for Optical Materials Science and Engineering Technologies, where he performs research on optical fibers.

The use of it for medical applications during surgery and therapy continues to grow. Optical fiber technology enables less invasive versions of more traditional methods. Surgeons can now use a fiber the size of a hair to cut a tumor out with a laser, for example.

“The science of light plays an increasingly important role in the way we live,” Ballato said. “Optical fiber is the enabling technology behind modern communications and is finding growing use in medical, sensing and defense systems.”

OpTek Systems of Greenville uses the technology for guidance systems and temperate systems for military applications; catheters and probes for medical applications; and daily uses for the telecommunications market.

Optic fiber companies tend to cluster, Ballato said, with most of the S.C. companies along the I-85 corridor in the Upstate.

AFL of Spartanburg, a subsidiary of Fujikura, is one such company. As a worldwide fiber cable manufacturer, AFL provides products and services to the electric utility, broadband, communications, OEM, enterprise, wireless and transit rail markets, as well as the emerging markets of oil and gas, mining, nuclear, avionics, medical, renewable and intelligent grids.

Dinkel began operations in Greenville five years ago and has hired 12 employees. OpTek Systems found the available engineering resources in and around Greenville appealing, as well as the labor, cost of living, international access and close proximity to the airport for shipping.

OpTek Systems, with facilities in China and the UK, builds high-powered laser systems used for material processing. It serves the solar energy markets, electronic devices, laser processes and optical fiber, as well as the manufacturing of optical fiber for use in machines.

Another Upstate example is Tetramer Technologies. Founded in 2011 as a COMSET spin-off, it makes a variety of optical and non-optical materials. It began as a startup company commercializing high-value optical polymer research activities at Clemson University and now has 26 employees in Pendleton.

Workforce education

South Carolina needs more engineers, physicists, and technicians for the industry, Dinkel said. Applicants with good hand-eye coordination, the ability to work in clean-room environments and the ability to work under magnification for extended areas of time are preferred.

Tri-County Technical College established additional fiber optics training courses this fall as the demand for certified technicians increased across the Upstate. Tri-County Technical College’s Corporate and Community Education Division, in association with BDI Datalynk, hosted the series of training sessions.

Students had the option to become certified fiber optics technicians; certified fiber optics specialists in testing and maintenance; or certified fiber optics specialists in splicing, which focuses on mechanical and fusion splicing of fiber optics networks.

Bob Ballard, owner of BDI Data Lynk, which partnered for the Tri-County training, said demand increased as opportunity within the industry increased. The telecommunications industry in particular requires fiber optic cable because of bandwidth.

Ballard, an instructor for the certification courses, said this will only continue to grow and students getting certified increase their chances of employment within the industry.

As director of COMSET, Ballato oversees interdisciplinary research conducted by more than two dozen faculty from five Clemson departments. COMSET’s focus is the science and engineering of light and the development of advanced materials, devices, and systems that generate, transmit, manipulate and utilize light.

Ballato said the most distinctive COMSET research is seen in optical fiber capabilities that can be applied to industrial, manufacturing and commercial arenas. He wants to keep students interested in this field throughout college, as well as in early education.

“I try to keep the pipeline populated,” Ballato said. “It’s in the industry’s best interest that we continue to have the workforce trained in this industry. We don’t want the work to slow.”

Ballato said in his experience students are interested in receiving an education for the optical fiber industry, but often leave the state for their careers. The support from the Upstate SC Alliance and the S.C. Department of Commerce helps to recruit companies for these students to begin putting their education to use in the field.

Ballato was recently named a fellow of the Optical Society of America, an academic and trade association for optics and photonics.