Physics professors receive Rank Prize for optical fibre discoveries

Physics Professors Tim Birks and Jonathan Knight have received The Rank Prize for Optoelectonics 2018 for their work on photonic crystal fibres.

The pair were reunited with former colleague Professor Philip Russell, who now works in Germany, at an awards ceremony in London on Monday 12 February where each received a £30,000 prize for their ground-breaking work.

Professors Birks, Russell and Knight received the Rank Prize for Optoelectonics 2018. Credit Michael Fendick

The trio received the prize for the invention and realisation of photonic crystal optical fibres. Profs Birks, Knight and Russell demonstrated the first photonic crystal fibres whilst working together at the University of Southampton in 1995.

In 1996 they moved to the University of Bath and continued the research, leading to numerous scientific breakthroughs.

They discovered that surrounding an optical fibre with an air-filled glass cladding arranged in a honeycomb structure increases the confinement and the intensity of the light passing through, compared to a solid glass cladding.

This research then led onto using variants of the honeycomb structure to allow the light to be confined not to a solid glass core but to a hollow one, creating photonic crystal fibres with a range of new or improved applications including the transmission of intense light pulses, fibre lasers and light sources, gas sensors and others.

Professor Birks said: “We’re very grateful and very honoured to have the work recognised in this very public and high profile way: these things don’t come round very often.

“Having seen the distinguished names who have been winners from previous years, it’s an honour to be in that company.”

Prof Birks added that when the team began their research, they weren’t sure where it would lead.

“It was curiosity-led research because we found it interesting,” He said. “When you’re developing things with new properties you almost expect applications to appear but we didn’t know exactly where we were headed.”

Profs Birks and Knight continue to work on photonic crystal fibres, and in particular are looking at industrial applications of fibre lasers in manufacturing.

Prof Birks paid tribute to all the people who had helped with the research throughout.

He said: “It wasn’t just the three of us doing to the work, we have been helped by an awful lot of people over the years, post-docs, students and collaborators who deserve their share of the credit."

The Rank Prize Funds were established in 1972 by the late Lord J. Arthur Rank to encourage a greater understanding of the sciences of nutrition and optoelectronics which he believed would be of special interest to mankind.

The two areas relate to the fields into which Lord Rank's career led him - the flour milling industry, Ranks Hovis McDougall PLC and the film industry, The Rank Organisation.

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