An optical attenuator is a device used to reduce the power level of an optical signal, either in free space or in an optical fiber. The basic types of optical attenuators are fixed, step-wise variable, and continuously variable.
Fiber optic attenuator is used in applications where the optical signal is too strong and needs to be reduced. Optical attenuators are commonly used in fiber optic communications, either to test power level margins by temporarily adding a calibrated amount of signal loss, or installed permanently to properly match transmitter and receiver levels.
For example, in a multi-wavelength fiber optic system, you need to equalize the optical channel strength so that all the channels have similar power levels. This means to reduce stronger channels’ powers to match lower power channels. Another example is when the received optical power is so strong that it saturates the receiver, you need an optical attenuator to reduce the power so the receiver can detect the signal correctly.
Fiber optic attenuators are usually used in two scenarios. The first case is in fiber optic power level testing. Optical attenuators are used to temporarily add a calibrated amount of signal loss in order to test the power level margins in a fiber optic communication system. In the second case, optical attenuators are permanently installed in a fiber optic communication link to properly match transmitter and receiver optical signal levels.
Optical attenuators are typically classified as fixed or variable optical attenuator.
Fixed optical attenuators used in fiber optic systems may use a variety of principles for their functioning. Preferred attenuators use either doped fibers, or mis-aligned splices, since both of these are reliable and inexpensive. Inline style attenuators are incorporated into patch cables. The alternative build out style attenuator is a small male-female adapter that can be added on to other cables.
Variable optical attenuators generally use a variable neutral density filter. Despite relatively high cost, this arrangement has the advantages of being stable, wavelength insensitive, mode insensitive, and offering a large dynamic range. Other schemes such as LCD, variable air gap etc. have been tried over the years, but with limited success.
For precise testing purposes, engineers have also designed instrument type variable optical attenuators. They have high attenuation ranges, such as from 0.5 dB to 70dB. They also have very fine resolution, such as 0.01dB. This is critical for accurate testing.
Variable optical attenuator instrument calibration is a major issue. The user typically would like an absolute port to port calibration. Also, calibration should usually be at a number of wavelengths and power levels, since the device is not always linear. However a number of instruments do not in fact offer these basic features, presumably in an attempt to reduce cost. The most accurate variable attenuator instruments have thousands of calibration points, resulting in excellent overall accuracy in use.