In general, such fibers have a cross-section (normally uniform along the fiber length) microstructured from two or more materials, most commonly arranged periodically over much of the cross-section, usually as a "cladding" surrounding a core (or several cores) where light is confined. For example, the fibers first demonstrated by Russell consisted of a hexagonal lattice of air holes in a silica fiber, with a solid (1996) or hollow (1998) core at the center where light is guided. Other arrangements include concentric rings of two or more materials, first proposed as "Bragg fibers" by Yeh and Yariv (1978), a variant of which was recently fabricated by Temelkuran et al. (2002).
(Note: PCFs and, in particular, Bragg fibers, should not be confused with fiber Bragg gratings, which consist of a periodic refractive index or structural variation along the fiber axis, as opposed to variations in the transverse directions as in PCF. Both PCFs and fiber Bragg gratings employ Bragg diffraction phenomena, albeit in different directions.)
Generally, such fibers are constructed by the same methods as other optical fibers: first, one constructs a "preform" on the scale of centimeters in size, and then heats the preform and draws it down to a much smaller diameter (often nearly as small as a human hair), shrinking the preform cross section but (usually) maintaining the same features. In this way, kilometers of fiber can be produced from a single preform. Most photonic crystal fiber has been fabricated in silica glass, but other glasses have also been used to obtain particular optical properties (such has high optical non-linearity). There is also a growing interest in making them from polymer, where a wide variety of structures have been explored, including graded index structures, ring structured fibres and hollow core fibers. These polymer fibers have been termed "MPOF", short for microstructured polymer optical fibers (van Eijkelenborg, 2001). A combination of a polymer and a chalcogenide glass was used by Temelkuran et al. (2002) for 10.6 µm wavelengths (where silica is not transparent).
Photonic crystal fibers can be divided into two modes of operation, according to their mechanism for confinement. Those with a solid core, or a core with a higher average index than the microstructured cladding, can operate on the same index-guiding principle as conventional optical fiber — however, they can have a much higher effective-index contrast between core and cladding, and therefore can have much stronger confinement for applications in nonlinear optical devices, polarization-maintaining fibers, (or they can also be made with much lower effective index contrast). Alternatively, one can create a "photonic bandgap" fiber, in which the light is confined by a photonic bandgap created by the microstructured cladding — such a bandgap, properly designed, can confine light in a lower-index core and even a hollow (air) core. Bandgap fibers with hollow cores can potentially circumvent limits imposed by available materials, for example to create fibers that guide light in wavelengths for which transparent materials are not available (because the light is primarily in the air, not in the solid materials). Another potential advantage of a hollow core is that one can dynamically introduce materials into the core, such as a gas that is to be analyzed for the presence of some substance.