Why choose fibre optic over copper conductors?

The choice between fibre optic and copper conductors isn’t a simple case of one being better than the other. Each has strengths and weaknesses, depending on the application or installation it is being used in. 

Firstly, consider the application. If you’re looking for power cables, then generally speaking copper is a better choice as it’s much more efficient for power transmission than fibre optic. The question would more likely be whether to choose a copper or aluminium conductor. However, in the rare instance where you're working in a specialised environment where metal might be unsuitable, such as areas with high electromagnetic interference, then fibre optic can be used for to transmit power.

If you're looking for cables to transmit data, then fibre optic cables may be the preferred choice. With fibre optic cables transmitting light instead of current, they are capable of transmitting data much faster and in greater volumes than copper cables – over 60 terabytes per second over fibre optic, compared to 10 gigabytes per second over copper. Fibre optic can also transmit data for more than 12 miles at speeds of 10,000 megabytes per second, compared to 300 feet at 1,000 megabytes per second over copper. 

The environment you’re working in is also important. If you are laying cable in areas that might be susceptible to interference, it's worth noting that fibre optic cable is virtually immune to both electromagnetic and radio interference. Fibre optic is also nearly impossible to tap, making it more appropriate than copper for high-security data links. Where a metal conductor is selected, a metallic braid or tape screen would be required to provide EMC protection.

Cost is another factor – and one that is mostly copper’s favour. Copper cable is easier to install, particularly in complex routes as there is more leeway in the bend radius (bend a fibre cable too much and you risk breaking the glass fibres inside, rendering it useless) - saving you time and money on site labour costs as well as upfront costs. So, if you're not specifically installing for high-speed secure connectivity or long-distance data transfer, copper cable may be sufficient. 

For data transfer in particular, fibre optic gives a degree of future-proofing for an installation, particularly if installing in a new build, but in many cases there will be a legacy copper infrastructure that means copper remains the most cost-effective solution for the scope of the project. In short, for most applications where data transfer is the main objective and where designers and electrical engineers have a blank page to specify, fibre optic cables offer the blend of volume and speed of data transfer... but it's not always as straightforward as that. That's where a composite cable may be the answer - having both fibre strands and copper power cores combined under one single overall sheath. It's a solution often seen in the Mining industry with cables such as the (N)TSCGEWÖU +FO - a flexible rubber sheathed cable with tinned copper cores and single or multi-modal fibre strands over the twisted cores for reeling applications on dynamic equipment.


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