What is an Erbium-Doped Fiber Amplifier (EDFA)?

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- GoPhotonics

Mar 9, 2023

An Erbium-Doped Fiber Amplifier (EDFA) is a device that amplifies weak input optical signals without converting them into electrical signals. An optical amplifier is a device that amplifies the intensity of optical signals traveling through fiber optic cables without converting them into electrical signals. EDFAs were invented in the mid-1980s by Dr. David Payne and his team at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom. This discovery was a significant breakthrough in the field of optical communications and paved the way for the development of long-haul optical communication systems that could transmit signals over distances of thousands of kilometers without the need for electronic regenerators. The erbium-doped fiber amplifier is commercially available since the early 1990s. Today, EDFAs are widely used in fiber optic communication systems to amplify optical signals in the 1550 nm wavelength range and work best in this range with a gain of up to 30 dB. They are polarization independent and have high gain and low noise. 

Working of EDFA 

EDFAs are the commonly used fiber optic amplifier and they work by amplifying light through the process of stimulated emission. The main component of an EDFA is erbium-doped fiber, which is an optical fiber made of silica and doped with a small amount of erbium ions (Er3+), a rare earth element. This device uses the properties of erbium ions to amplify optical signals traveling through fiber-optic cables, allowing data to be transmitted over long distances with high speed and low loss. The Erbium ions are added to the core of the optical fiber during the manufacturing process. 

Figure 1: Schematic of EDFA

The basic principle of operation of EDFAs is based on the interaction of light with erbium ions. The two laser diodes (LD) provide the pump power for the erbium-doped fiber at a wavelength of 980 nm or 1480 nm. The dichroic pump couplers are used to couple light into the erbium-doped fiber. When light passes through the fiber, it excites the erbium atoms, causing them to emit light of wavelength 1550 nm after amplifying the original signal. The released extra photons are in the same phase and direction as the original signal. The two pig-tailed Faraday isolators are used to strongly reduce the sensitivity of the device to back-reflections from the laser source. Figure 1 shows the schematic setup of a simple erbium-doped fiber amplifier (EDFA).

This process of stimulated emission amplifies the optical signal as it passes through the fiber. The erbium ions are then "pumped" back to their original energy level by a separate laser, which is coupled into the fiber.

Energy level diagram

Figure 2: EDFA working principle

When an EDFA is pumped at 980 nm, Er3+ ions in the ground state absorb the energy and are excited to the pump level. Due to the shorter lifetime of the pump level, the excited Er ion is immediately relaxed to the metastable state by releasing phonons. This relaxation process creates a population inversion between the ground level and metastable state, and amplification takes place at around 1550 nm. Another potential pump wavelength is 1480 nm; amplification takes place at around 1550 nm when enough pump power is applied to the fiber and a population inversion between the ground state and metastable state is formed.

Erbium is chosen as the dopant for fiber amplifiers because of its unique characteristics and advantages over other types of optical amplifiers:

  • High Amplification Efficiency: EDFAs offer high amplification efficiency in the 1550 nm wavelength region, which is used in long-haul communication systems. This is because erbium ions may effectively absorb and amplify signals in this range due to their relatively large absorption cross-section at this wavelength. 
  • Low Noise: Since EDFAs have low noise figures, they amplify signals with little noise. This is important in communication systems, as noise can degrade the quality of the signal.
  • Stability: Erbium ions are comparatively stable in glass, hence EDFAs have a long lifetime and can sustain stable amplification for extended periods of time.
  • Compatibility with Optical Fibers: Erbium ions can be easily integrated into fiber amplifiers since they are compatible with the silica-based optical fibers used in communication systems.
  • Cost-effective: Erbium is relatively abundant and cost-effective compared to other rare earth elements that can be used as dopants for fiber amplifiers, such as neodymium or ytterbium.

Basic configuration of EDFA

The essential components of an EDFA configuration are an EDF, a pump laser, and a component, commonly called a WDM, for mixing the signal and pump wavelengths so that they can propagate simultaneously via the EDF. EDFAs can be built so that pump energy propagates in one of three directions: forward pumping, backward pumping, or both directions together. In forward pumping, the pump energy is propagated in the same direction as the signal. Whereas in backward pumping the pump energy is propagated in the opposite direction of the signal.

Figure 3: Schematic of a 980 nm EDFA

Maximum possible gain in EDFA is characterized as:


Pp = power in

Ps = power out

λs  = amplified signal wavelength

λ= pumping signal wavelength

Types of EDFA

There are three different configurations of an EDFA amplifier:

Figure 4: Booster, In-line and Pre-amplifier configurations of an EDFA

Booster amplifier: This amplifier operates at the transmission side of the link, placed after the transmitter, to amplify the signal channels leaving the transmitter to the level necessary for launching into the fiber link. This booster amplifier has high input power, high output power and medium optical gain compared to other amplifiers.

In-line amplifier: It is placed at intermediate points along the transmission line to overcome fiber transmission and other distribution losses. The in-line EDFA is intended for optical amplification between two network nodes across the primary optical link. It has medium to low input power, high output power, high optical gain, and a low noise figure.

Pre-amplifier: This EDFA amplifier operates at the end, just before the receiver to ensure that the receiver gets enough optical power. It is used to compensate for losses near the optical receiver. This amplifier has relatively low input power, medium output power and medium gain.

Limitations of EDFA

However, EDFAs do have some limitations. 

  • The most significant limitation is the inability to amplify signals in the visible range. This is because erbium does not have absorption at visible wavelengths. 
  • Additionally, EDFAs have a limited gain bandwidth, which means that they cannot amplify signals over a broad range of wavelengths. This limitation can be overcome by using multiple EDFAs in series or combining them with other amplification technologies such as Raman amplification. 
  • Need for pump laser.
  • Need to use a gain equalizer for multistage amplification.
  • It is difficult to integrate with other components.
  • Dropping channels can give rise to errors in surviving channels.

Applications of EDFA

EDFAs find applications in several areas of fiber optic communication, including long-haul communication, metro area networks, and submarine communication systems. They are also used in fiber optic sensors and optical signal processing.

  • Long-haul communication systems to boost optical signals over long distances in optical communication systems, such as undersea communication cables, metropolitan area networks (MANs), and wide area networks (WANs).
  • Fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) networks to boost the optical signal from the central office to the customer's home. This allows for high-speed internet access, digital television, and telephone service over a single fiber optic cable.
  • Dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM) systems to amplify multiple signals that are transmitted over different wavelengths on the same fiber optic cable. This allows for more data to be transmitted over a single fiber optic cable.
  • Research and development of optical communication systems, such as for testing new types of optical fibers and developing new transmission protocols.
  • Medical applications such as in optical coherence tomography (OCT) imaging, which is used to create high-resolution images of tissues in the body.