Corning optical fiber innovators take their place in the National Inventors Hall of Fame

Clair Warren Ginnan

A chemist, a physicist, and an engineer walk into a lab ... and change the way we communicate.

 
Ming-Jun Li, a physicist, adds his name to the Gallery of Icons at the National Inventors Hall of Fame in May. Ming-Jun Li, a physicist, adds his name to the Gallery of Icons at the National Inventors Hall of Fame in May.

A Corning trio has more than 500 U.S. patents between them, and most of us use their inventions every day. In fact, you’re probably using a couple of them right now.

For these contributions, Corning scientists Pushkar Tandon, Ming-Jun Li, and Dana Bookbinder (retired) were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF) on May 5, 2022, in partnership with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

They join a cadre of legendary innovators – including 12 other Corning inventors – who’ve progressed the way our world works. The recognition honors their achievements in bringing bendable optical fiber – and the internet – right into our homes, offices, and schools.

At the ceremony, Ming-Jun and Pushkar placed their names in the Gallery of Icons exhibit at the NIHF Museum in Alexandria, Virginia, alongside more than 600 other inventors inducted since 1970.

“It was a great honor to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame,” Ming-Jun said. “When I placed my name onto the Inductee Wall joining the other great inventors, it was a proud moment not only for myself, but also for Corning.”

The trio’s turn-of-the-century collaboration led to Corning’s development of what would become an industry-changing solution – ClearCurve® optical fiber. The development made fiber more accessible at a critical time in communications history.

In the early 2000s, Pushkar, a chemical engineer; Ming-Jun, a physicist; and Dana, a chemist, began collaborating on a new type of optical fiber. They started by infusing air bubbles into glass fiber, noting that the bubbles increased bendability. 

 
By 2006, internet carriers began a push for fiber to the home, connecting not just countries and cities, but homes – not just in the arteries, but in the veins. There was a lot of serendipity there. We had the right product at the right time.
Pushkar Tandon
 

The trio’s work advanced Corning’s 1970 invention that changed telecommunications forever. At that time, the global race was on to find an optical replacement for copper wire, used to transmit phone calls and data over long distances. Another Corning trio - scientists Robert Maurer, Donald Keck, and Peter Schultz - did it. They invented the first low-loss optical fiber that revolutionized global telecommunications and enabled emerging communications applications, including the internet. 

That original invention helped lay the groundwork for long-haul fiber to span oceans and countries, vastly speeding up the transfer of data over long distances. The turn of the 21st century brought a new demand for direct fiber connectivity to homes, schools, and offices. But light escapes from bends in long, straight conventional optical fiber, resulting in signal loss.

Ultimately, Pushkar, Ming-Jun, and Dana changed the optical design and the chemical structure of the core of the fiber. By modifying the chemistry and process of synthesizing optical fiber, they solved this bendability problem, enabling its use in new communications applications. These scientists found a way to bend and coil optical fiber around tight corners with virtually no signal loss, paving the way for high-speed data transfer and internet streaming.

The scientists say they didn’t set out to change the world. They had worked together for years and collaborated often, sharing ideas and solutions from their varying skillsets.

“Even before we started working on this project –­ three very different people with very diverse backgrounds – our skills are complementary to each other. We all like to work on difficult problems,” Ming-Jun said. “We just did our job. We had fun together and now people can benefit from that. I think that’s great.”

Over time, their breakthrough ushered in still more advancements. The superior bendability of ClearCurve® fiber helped simplify and accelerate the delivery of fiber to millions of homes. It also led directly to Corning’s EDGE™ data center solution, now found all over the world in more than 50,000 data centers, the storage hubs that make today’s data-rich applications possible.

This cycle of innovation – one breakthrough leading to another – results in products that are vital to the world’s progress. This is what Corning is all about.

“It’s been really exciting to see how our invention has continued to develop over the last decade to help enable today’s ‘connected world’ and what’s coming next,” Pushkar said. “We could never have anticipated the impact this technology would have on the way we communicate and share information.”

 
Pushkar Tandon, a chemical engineer, helped develop bendable optical fiber for Corning. Pushkar Tandon, a chemical engineer, helped develop bendable optical fiber for Corning.
 
 
Pushkar Tandon, left, and Ming-Jun Li were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for their development of bendable optical fiber that brought high speed access to homes and data centers. Pushkar Tandon, left, and Ming-Jun Li were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for their development of bendable optical fiber that brought high speed access to homes and data centers.
 
The superior bendability of ClearCurve® fiber helped simplify and accelerate the delivery of fiber to millions of homes, businesses, and schools. The superior bendability of ClearCurve® fiber helped simplify and accelerate the delivery of fiber to millions of homes, businesses, and schools.
 

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