Encyclopedia … combined with a great Buyer's Guide!

Multi-core Fibers

Author: the photonics expert

Acronym: MCF

Definition: optical fibers containing more than one fiber core

Alternative term: multicore fibers

More general term: optical fibers

Opposite term: single-core fibers

Categories: article belongs to category fiber optics and waveguides fiber optics and waveguides, article belongs to category lightwave communications lightwave communications

DOI: 10.61835/766   Cite the article: BibTex plain textHTML

Most optical fibers have a single fiber core, which is usually located on the fiber axis. However, there are also specialty fibers containing multiple cores, which may e.g. be arranged on a ring around the fiber axis or on some 2D grid. (For example, a seven-core fiber may have six cores on the edges of the hexagon and a central core in addition – see Figure 1.) Such fibers are called multi-core fibers (or multicore fibers). In the case with two cores only, one may also use the term dual-core fiber.


Multi-core fibers can be realized with all-glass fiber technology or alternatively as photonic crystal fibers containing air holes. In the first case, one may fabricate an all-glass preform which contains multiple cores, or combine multiple single-corporate forms to a branch from which the fiber is drawn (bunch fiber). For photonic crystal fibers, no special extension of the fabrication technology is required; one can simply assemble a more complex bundle of rods and/or tubes to obtain a preform with multiple cores.

Guiding in Multiple Cores

multi-core fiber
Figure 1: Design of a seven-core fiber with hexagonal lattice structure.

In principle, each of the fiber cores in such a fiber can act as a separate waveguide, so that light can independently propagate through those cores. However, there can be some mode coupling between the cores (see Figure 2) if the distance between two cores is so small that the corresponding mode fields have a significant spatial overlap. This means that light which is initially coupled into one core can eventually couple over to other cores; that effect is similar as in fused fiber couplers.

For such a situation, one can compute so-called supermodes, i.e., field configurations which are stationary despite the coupling. Note, however, that supermodes calculated in mode coupling theory for an idealized situation may not be the true modes of a fiber subject to random fluctuations in fabrication and/or due to operation conditions. Light propagation in such fibers can also be investigated with methods of numerical beam propagation, where one may also take into account random fluctuations.

Although in some cases the mentioned kind of coupling is desired, in many others it is avoided or minimized by using large enough spacings between the cores. For example, one often wants to avoid substantial crosstalk in optical fiber communication systems. Often, the fiber cores have rather small diameters of a few micrometers, so that single-mode propagation is obtained in some wavelength range. A distance of the order of 30 to 40 μm between each pair of cores may then be sufficient to avoid significant coupling even within kilometers of fiber. The usual fiber diameter of 125 μm then allows only for a quiet limited number of cores in such weakly-coupled fibers. There is obviously a trade-off between a high core density and low crosstalk e.g. in telecom systems. That trade-off can be mitigated in various ways, e.g. by reducing the coupling by stronger mode confinement (e.g. with refractive index trenches or air holes around the cores), or with heterogeneous designs where the different core modes have different effective refractive indices. In principle, one can also increase the fiber diameter, but that is often not practical because the sensitivity of the fiber to bending is then increased.

coupling between the cores in a multi-core fiber
Figure 2: Coupling of light between the cores of a 7-core fiber, numerically simulated with the software RP Fiber Power. In this example, the spacing between the cores is 20 μm, and the fiber design has not been optimized for low coupling. Here, we obtain substantial coupling within only a few millimeters of fiber.

Note that the coupling between fiber cores will generally critically depend on the exact distance. This means that it can be affected even by tiny fabrication tolerances.

Tapered Multi-core Fibers

In some cases, multi-core fibers are tapered. Each fiber core will then be subject to the same taper ratio. However, as at most one core can be on the fiber axis, the others will also experience a lateral shift, which implies bending in the taper region. That may lead to additional bend losses. Another problem may be unwanted coupling of light between the cores in the region with small fiber diameter. One may need to optimize the taper design in order to minimize such effects – for example, based on numerical simulations of flight propagation in such devices.

Telecom Applications

In optical fiber communications, there is a long-term trend towards more and more expanding the transmission capacities, as data traffic keeps growing at a large rate. Obviously, there is thus an interest in maximizing the transmission capacity per fiber, and one of the technological options is using multiple cores in one fiber, so that multiple signals can be simultaneously transmitted with spatial separation (space division multiplexing, SDM). That principle can also be realized with few-mode fibers or multimode fibers, but multi-core fibers allow for realization with much weaker coupling between the channels. The two approaches may even be combined when using multiple multimode cores, which can result in a larger number of transmission channels.

When using fibers with negligibly weak coupling between the cores over the full transmission distance, the system can be conceptually simpler. However, fibers with relatively strong mode coupling can also be employed, using techniques of multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) digital signal processing. In the latter case, the spacing between the cores can be much smaller, so that more fiber cores can be placed in a single fiber, and the overall transmission capacity can be higher. The same kind of techniques can be used in conjunction with few-mode fibers and multimode fibers. Compared with those, single-mode multi-core fibers have the advantage that the spread of group velocities is much smaller, which allows the use of MIMO receiver with smaller complexity.

A substantial technical challenge for the industrial use of multi-core fibers is the need to couple light for multiple signal channels into the different cores of the fiber, and to handle outputs from multiple cores. Suitable coupler devices also have to satisfy a number of practical requirements. One of the proposed solutions is to use laser-inscribed 3D waveguides in a small glass block, which connect different cores of a MCF with the cores of a set of output or input fibers which are arranged in a linear sequence [3].

Another challenge is that splicing of multi-core fibers is obviously more difficult than for ordinary single-core fibers: the cores need to be carefully aligned.

For long transmission distances, fiber amplifiers are often employed. Special erbium-doped fiber amplifiers for multi-core fibers have been developed, where simultaneous amplification for all the cores is achieved, in some cases even using only a single pump source. Further research and development of such multi-core EDFAs [6] is required, paying attention to technical issues like core-dependent gain. There are realizations based on cladding-pumped active fibers where only one or two pumped lasers are required and the differential model gain can still be quite limited [17].

The practical difficulties for introducing multi-core fiber telecom systems are substantial, also concerning cost; it is therefore not clear how far this development will go. It is also considered just to use multiple fibers, or a larger number of such fibers within one fiber cable. As a simpler alternative solution, it is relatively easy to further increase the number of fibers, for example by using thinner glass fibers with thinner polymer coatings.

Other Applications

Multi-core fibers can also be utilized for other (non-telecom) applications. An example is the area of fiber-optic sensors. Possible operation principles can exploit the sensitivity of coupling between multiple cores to external influences such as strain or temperature changes. Such sensors may be realized in the form of interferometers involving light passes through different cores.

Another example is the application of multi-core fibers in high-power fiber lasers and amplifiers. In order to mitigate nonlinear effects, one distributes the optical power over the different fiber cores and may at the end recombine the light (→ coherent beam combining). The relative optical phases of the light which is propagated through the different fiber cores must be carefully controlled. This, however, is less challenging than when using separate fibers because externally induced phase changes in the different cores are normally quite similar, and only their differences count for beam combining.

More to Learn

Encyclopedia articles:


The RP Photonics Buyer's Guide contains 13 suppliers for multi-core fibers. Among them:


[1]S. Inao et al., “Multicore optical fiber”, Opt. Fiber Commun. Conf., Washington DC, USA, Paper WB1 (1979)
[2]S. Inao et al., “High density multicore-fiber cable”, Proc. Int. Wire Cable Symp., p. 370 (1979)
[3]R. R. Thomson et al., “Ultrafast-laser inscription of a three dimensional fan-out device for multicore fiber coupling applications”, Opt. Express 15 (18), 11691 (2007); https://doi.org/10.1364/OE.15.011691
[4]S. Matsuo et al., “Large-effective-area ten-core fiber with cladding diameter of about 200 μm”, Opt. Lett. 36 (23), 4626 (2011); https://doi.org/10.1364/OL.36.004626
[5]K. Imamura et al., “Investigation on multi-core fibers with large <$A_\textrm{eff}$> and low micro bending loss”, Opt. Express 19 (11), 10595 (2011); https://doi.org/10.1364/OE.19.010595
[6]K. S. Abedin et al., “Amplification and noise properties of an erbium-doped multicore fiber amplifier”, Opt. Express 19 (17), 16715 (2011); https://doi.org/10.1364/OE.19.016715
[7]B. Zhu et al., “112-Tb/s Space-division multiplexed DWDM transmission with 14-b/s/Hz aggregate spectral efficiency over a 76.8-km seven-core fiber”, Opt. Express 19 (17), 16665 (2011); https://doi.org/10.1364/OE.19.016665
[8]J. P. Moore and M. D. Rogge, “Shape sensing using multi-core fiber optic cable and parametric curve solutions”, Opt. Express 20 (3), 2967 (2012); https://doi.org/10.1364/OE.20.002967
[9]S. Matsuo et al., “12-core fiber with one ring structure for extremely large capacity transmission”, Opt. Express 20 (27), 28398 (2012); https://doi.org/10.1364/OE.20.028398
[10]A. Sano et al., “409-Tb/s + 409-Tb/s crosstalk suppressed bidirectional MCF transmission over 450 km using propagation-direction interleaving”, Opt. Express 21 (14), 16777 (2013); https://doi.org/10.1364/OE.21.016777
[11]T. Hayashi et al., “Physical interpretation of intercore crosstalk in multicore fiber: Effects of macrobend, structure fluctuation, and microbend”, Opt. Express 21 (5), 5401 (2013); https://doi.org/10.1364/OE.21.005401
[12]K. Saitoh and S. Matsuo, “Multicore fibers for large capacity transmission”, Nanophotonics 2 (5-6), 441 (2013); https://doi.org/10.1515/nanoph-2013-0037
[13]A. Ziolowicz et al., “Hole-assisted multicore optical fiber for next generation telecom transmission systems”, Appl. Phys. Lett. 105 (8), 081106 (2014); https://doi.org/10.1063/1.4894178
[14]Q. Kang et al., “Minimizing differential modal gain in cladding-pumped EDFAs supporting four and six mode groups”, Opt. Express 22 (18), 21499 (2014); https://doi.org/10.1364/OE.22.021499
[15]P. M. Krummrich and S. Akhtari, “Selection of energy optimized pump concepts for multi core and multi mode erbium doped fiber amplifiers”, Opt. Express 22 (24), 30267 (2014); https://doi.org/10.1364/OE.22.030267
[16]K. Saitoh and S. Matsuo, “Multicore fiber technology” (tutorial review), J. Lightwave Technol. 34 (1), 55 (2016)
[17]H. Chen et al., “Integrated cladding-pumped multicore few-mode erbium-doped fibre amplifier for space-division-multiplexed communications”, Nature Photonics 10, 529 (2016); https://doi.org/10.1038/nphoton.2016.125
[18]Eyal Cohen et al., “Neural networks within multi-core optic fibers”, Nature Scientific Reports 6, article 29080 (2016); https://doi.org/10.1038/srep29080
[19]S. Jain et al., “32-core erbium/ytterbium-doped multicore fiber amplifier for next generation space-division multiplexed transmission system”, Opt. Express 25 (26), 32887 (2017); https://doi.org/10.1364/OE.25.032887
[20]S. García et al., “Bending and twisting effects on multicore fiber differential group delay”, Opt. Express 27 (22), 31290 (2019); https://doi.org/10.1364/OE.27.031290
[21]M. C. Alonso-Murias et al., “Long-range multicore optical fiber displacement sensor”, Opt. Lett. 46 (9), 2224 (2021); https://doi.org/10.1364/OL.421004
[22]S. Jain et al., “High spatial-density, cladding-pumped 6-mode 7-core fiber amplifier for C-band operation”, Opt. Express 29 (19), 30675 (2021); https://doi.org/10.1364/OE.428142

(Suggest additional literature!)

Questions and Comments from Users


How to determine the LP modes of the multicore optical fibers?

The author's answer:

If the fiber cores are far enough from each other, so that interactions between their modes are negligible, you can calculate the LP modes just as for any single-core fiber. Otherwise, you don't have LP modes anymore. For calculating the then more complicated mode structure, you generally need a much more sophisticated numerical mode solver.


Can one determine effective refractive indices of a multi-core fiber (7, 9, 19 cores) using RP Fiber Power?

Can I model a MCF link to determine nonlinear effects (GVD, FWM, SRS etc.) using RP Fiber Power?

The author's answer:

The mode solver of the RP Fiber Power software is restricted to radially symmetric profiles and can therefore calculate effective refractive indices only for well separated cores – not for closely spaced and therefore coupled cores.

However, one could relatively easily obtain all refractive indices even for a fiber with coupled cores based on numerical beam propagation. For that, one could launch light into all cores, propagate that over a sufficiently large distance, and then apply a Fourier transform. Different peaks in the result can be related to different effective refractive indices. That can all be automated with a script.

Such a numerical beam propagation could also include nonlinear effects based on the Kerr nonlinearity and Raman scattering; only the combination with the spectral dimension (for dispersion) is not possible. That a full spatial-temporal treatment would be very demanding in terms of computation time and memory, particularly for large propagation distances is all relevant for telecom applications.


Are there multicore single mode and/or multicore multimode fibers? Also, let's say we've 6 core multimode fiber, may I use 3 core for Tx and 3 core for Rx connection?

The author's answer:

Yes, the cores and be single-mode or multimode. You may use some of them for backward channels.


What is the difference between a multicore fiber and a bundle of fibers?

The author's answer:

In contrast to a multi-core fiber, a fiber bundle is assembled from multiple fibers which have been fabricated separately.

Here you can submit questions and comments. As far as they get accepted by the author, they will appear above this paragraph together with the author’s answer. The author will decide on acceptance based on certain criteria. Essentially, the issue must be of sufficiently broad interest.

Please do not enter personal data here. (See also our privacy declaration.) If you wish to receive personal feedback or consultancy from the author, please contact him, e.g. via e-mail.

Spam check:

By submitting the information, you give your consent to the potential publication of your inputs on our website according to our rules. (If you later retract your consent, we will delete those inputs.) As your inputs are first reviewed by the author, they may be published with some delay.


Share this with your network:

Follow our specific LinkedIn pages for more insights and updates: