BOSTON - Shiro Matsuoka, part of a team at AT&T Bell Laboratories that handled plastics in trans-Atlantic, fiber-optic cables, won the 1995 International Award. Matsuoka's contribution was a computer model to predict how polyethylene performs in a demanding underwater environment. To make the cables, glass fiber is coated with PE. The fiber becomes very strong, with many times the phone call capacity of the old coaxial cable.
``You can pull it with tremendous force, something which is as thin as a hair,'' Matsuoka said.
But how would it work deep under the ocean? That was the question facing AT&T Bell Laboratories' Plastics Research and Development Department. Matsuoka headed the department for 20 years. He retired from AT&T in 1994 and became a professor at Polytechnic University in New York.
For the fiber-optic cable project, Matsuoka worked on a team headed by Lee Blyler Jr.
His job was to make a computer model to predict the dielectric loss of various materials. The resulting technology allows fewer repeaters, devices that periodically amplify transmission. Each undersea repeater is elaborate and costly, at $300,000.
Matsuoka, 65, accepted the International Award and spoke May 10 at the Society of Plastics Engineers' Boston convention, held May 8-11. SPE's highest honor, the International Award includes $5,000 and a gold medal.
The mechanical engineer's speech was titled ``Plastics in Communications Technology - Paving the Information Superhighway with Plastics.''
After the speech, he recalled how the resin industry has tackled commodity plastics and engineering plastics.
``The next generation is going to require some very difficult properties which we think are not possible today. Those people who invent that [are] going to be making a tremendous contribution,'' he said.
Matsuoka moved to the United States from Japan in 1950. He became a U.S. citizen in 1970.
He received a mechanical engineering degree from Stevens Institute of Technology in 1955. Advanced degrees followed from Princeton University: a master's in science and engineering, and a doctorate in mechanical engineering, focusing on materials.
Matsuoka holds one patent and has written more than 200 technical articles and five computer programs for predicting engineering properties of polymers and composites.
The fiber-optic cable work was done in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The first fiber-optic trans-Atlantic cable was installed in 1988. One fiber on that early model could handle 40,000 simultaneous calls. By 1996, the figure will be 320,000.
On the trans-Atlantic cable, AT&T researchers first tried building an apparatus to test the cables under high water pressure.
Using his computer simulation, the team found dielectric loss could be decreased by using PE of higher purity.
``The glass fiber has to be cradled as soon as it's drawn with a very soft and pure plastic. This is important because if it's not soft, it'll cause kinking,'' he said.
That causes an expensive problem. A ship has to be called out to fix the cable. The repair ship ``will have to know exactly where the break is. And it lifts it up and splices it, then puts it back.''