The James Webb Telescope recently wowed the world with stunningly scenic photos of never-before-seen space objects so distant from earth that viewing them is akin to cosmic time travel, back to the Big Bang. Advances in infrared light detection capabilities – along with an incredibly large 6.5-meter diameter mirror – are largely responsible for humanity’s ability not only to see the past but also to do so in high-resolution.
Now, a fluoride glass called ZBLAN is showing the theoretical potential to be to standard fiber optic glass what Webb is to the Hubble Telescope – transforming the fiber optic realm much like Webb has ushered in a new era of space exploration.
Both the Webb Telescope and ZBLAN get their special powers, so to speak, by harnessing the broader transmission range of infrared (IR) waves. Since IR waves have longer wavelengths than visible light, they have the capability to pass through dense material, revealing objects that would otherwise be invisible. In the case of Webb, the IR waves cut through gas and dust to galaxies far, far away; in the case of ZBLAN, an IR-enabled motion sensor could see through walls via heat signature detection, similar to a spy operative’s fictional use of IR goggles to view the bad guy moving in an adjacent building.
However, in the ZBLAN case, there’s just one problem: The material is impossible to make on earth. Gravity, it turns out, is a real downer to the production of it in any useful quantity.
Among those leading the charge to turn ZBLAN into a viable commercial technology is Anthony Torres, a native of Las Cruces, N.M., and an associate professor in Texas State University’s Department of Engineering Technology. While Torres earns a living by teaching students about the components of cement and concrete, he has continued pursuing research he first explored as a graduate student himself: understanding how gravity thwarts the fabrication of ZBLAN and the impact that microgravity environments and vibrations may have in its development.
That interest brought Torres back to his home state to participate in the 2021 Hyperspace Challenge as one of 11 university cohorts seeking to identify technology that has the potential to leverage microgravity for military and commercial applications.
Torres, who won the overall crowd favorite as well as third place in the university category, talked with Hyperspace Challenge editors about his experience, how he has leveraged that to advance ZBLAN research, and about his ultimate goal of realizing what he calls “the next generation of telecommunications and fiber optics.”
HSPC: Can you expand upon why ZBLAN is considered a potentially transformative material and why further research is desperately needed?
ZBLAN is an acronym for its chemical components, zirconium, barium, lanthanum, aluminum, and sodium. The problem is that it crystallizes when you produce it on earth; gravity causes motion, which then compels impurities to form in the raw material, significantly hindering performance. You need it to be completely clear. The perfect ZBLAN material has to be infrared transparent in order to send signals through it. For anyone who has ever watched participants on a baking show try to make caramel, it’s a lot like that. Too much convection in the sugary liquid can create a single crystal, which creates a chain reaction forming more crystals, and you have to throw it all out and start over. The same thing happens with ZBLAN. It just becomes cloudy so you can’t see through it, much like glass blocks used in showers. If we can figure out how to make the glass flawless, ZBLAN has the potential to perform up to 100 times more efficiently than traditional silica-based fibers. It will drastically change the telecommunications we have, make internet connections faster, and improve sensors for security systems and data transmission. As of now, the potential of ZBLAN has not been realized due to the crystallization that occurs during manufacturing. For it to be produced with little to no crystals, thus opening the door for many new applications, microgravity is a prerequisite.
HSPC: How did your participation in the Hyperspace Challenge help to advance ZBLAN research and increase interest on a broader scale – or did it?
Absolutely, it did. After Hyperspace, I’m suddenly this go-to guy for ZBLAN. One company actually hired me as a consultant. Others just want to pick my brain. Most importantly, though, I 100 percent leveraged my Hyperspace experience in a successful proposal for project funding from the University Research and Engagement Program (UREP), an annual program that the Air Force Research Lab facilitates to advance research that aligns with its mission and the U.S. Space Force. So, Hyperspace was a direct catalyst for a new mechanism to continue my ZBLAN research, which, before Hyperspace had been at a standstill. Without Hyperspace, I’d still be stagnant because R&D around that product is really outside of what I teach and do daily.
HSPC: UREP opportunities like you have received tend to focus on specific areas of research pertinent to the AFRL mission. How does your research do that?
This partnership is not only funding a two-year research and development opportunity for me, but it also progresses critical research needs of the Air Force and Space Force, while supporting STEM interests and careers of future generations. At least one graduate student of mine and two undergraduate students will be hired to facilitate the testing program and to help write reports and publications, furthering their education and professional development. This project also advances industry interests in identifying commercial technology that can leverage microgravity for military and commercial applications since ZBLAN glass is one of the primary products that benefits from microgravity processing. So, in the next two years, I hope to have more publications and more contributions to science with this because of the Hyperspace Challenge and then ultimately, through the UREP project.
HSPC: Where do you foresee the intersection of ZBLAN research and space exploration?
I think that microgravity and space exploration is the new frontier of research. The billionaires in the space race, especially, could provide an environment for researchers to do more and more microgravity research. Right now, testing the effects of microgravity and vibrations on ZBLAN are limited to a single pipeline for researchers interested in opportunities on the International Space Station and parabolic aircrafts, which mimic gravity-free environments. So, maybe Amazon, Virgin Galactic, and the many emerging companies will provide new laboratories to increase access for more microgravity research and testing.
HSPC: What’s your personal goal?
My goal with almost everything I get involved with in my life is to just try to learn and to become a better professor and educator in general. On the research side, I’m always trying to discover the next best way to conduct an experiment, to get new data, write better proposals, and just produce better science all the time, chipping away in marginal increments until I maybe hit on something that impacts that world. If I could contribute in some way to solving the internet problems that tend to plague humanity – speed, bandwidth, availability – and bring us that much closer to the perfect internet, then that would be awesome.