Using fluids other than alcohol for cleaning fiber optic connectors

August 18, 2014 // By Mike Jones, MicroCare
Long ago in days of yore, like the 1970s, Bell Labs was busy perfecting the technologies to commercialize fiber optic communications. Peering into their crystal ball in the nascent years of the digital age, they could see a time in the not-to-distant future when all the copper wire in the world could not handle the volume of data that people would want to send over phone lines.

One of the issues with which they struggled was finding suitable ways to quickly, conveniently and consistently clean the delicate fiber optic connectors. They found very early on that even the slightest contamination on the end-faces significantly degraded the performance of their networks. The scientists at Bell Labs recommended using only 99% reagent grade isopropyl alcohol (also known as “IPA” and “rubbing alcohol”) for cleaning their fiber optic connectors.

They made this recommendation for two reasons: it was readily available on their workbenches, and it worked. It worked because the solvent provided additional chemical action to enhance the mechanical action provided by the cleaning device (the wipe or swab). Alcohol and other solvents also are very effective at softening, loosening and/or dissolving dried-on contaminants and particulate. In short, those clever engineers at Bell Labs proved what everybody intuitively understands: a well-engineered cleaning fluid will enhance the removal of contaminants from the optical end-face.

Since that time much has changed. Fiber optics technologies are no longer the exclusive, exotic technology of the monolithic phone company but an enabling capability of almost every company (and soon, every home). Mobile video on demand has created skyrocketing demand for greater bandwidth. Computing technology has plummeted in cost and expanded in capability. All of this means networks have become larger, commonplace and faster. Good news, all of it.

Except for one odd little quirk: fiber networks, as they have become ubiquitous also have become more fragile.

We don’t expect this from our electronics, do we? Today’s cell phone is far better than the model from a few years ago. Today’s laptop vastly outperforms the first Compaq “luggable” computer, and today’s flat-screen TV… well, don’t even try to compare a WIFI-enabled, 80-inch screen to the color TVs of the 1970s.

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