Johannesburg - Researchers in laser science at the CSIR celebrated a world first yesterday, as they unveiled their discovery of a technique to digitally control laser beams from within a laser device.
The new method of controlling laser modes is expected to be fundamental to many future applications across industries including communications and medicine.
In communications, the invention can be applied to broaden bandwidth, according to Andrew Forbes, a professor and chief researcher at the CSIR’s National Laser Centre.
Laser beams, found in printers, barcode scanners, DVD players, surgical instruments and in cutting and welding, are conventionally controlled externally in a method that can be quite expensive.
Laser devices usually consist of mirrors, light and a casing containing a medium, which is either crystal or glass. Electrical current passed through the medium changes the frequency of light emitted to create a laser beam with perfect characteristics for various applications.
The shape of the beam is selected by expensive optics, which are applied externally.
By using the CSIR method, the beam can be shaped inside the laser device using computer technology. Now, any laser beam shape can be made from virtually the same device.
Sandile Ngcobo, a University of KwaZulu-Natal PhD candidate and a researcher at the laser centre, made the discovery last year, after two years of trial and error.
Ngcobo said American, German and Russian scientists had approached him and the centre for collaboration. The team has applied for provisional patents in these and other countries where this technology could be of interest.
Confirmation of the patent would be available next year, Forbes said.
The scientists were unable to quantify the cost of the technology at this stage.
The next phase was to make the technique work on higher powered equipment and to investigate the manufacturing possibilities. Its immediate use would be in laboratories, but this would not generate revenue, Forbes said, adding that the team would spend another year refining the technology.
“We now need to take it to a prototype device,” he said.
The findings have been published in the peer-reviewed Nature Communications journal (Nature Communications 4, no 2289, August 2, 2013).
Forbes said the CSIR had held early stage discussions with the Industrial Development Corporation and venture capitalists from the Western Cape, while two students were writing a business plan.
Derek Hanekom, the Minister of Science and Technology, said it was “extraordinary that scientists from South Africa from today onwards will be mentioned alongside Albert Einstein as contributors in the history of the laser. Actually, they have taken this technology forward; hence we say this innovation is groundbreaking.”
Laser technology was first developed in 1960.
Hanekom added that the department had launched a national photonics strategy to position the country as a global competitor in the field.
Darrell Comins, an emeritus research professor in the school of physics at Wits University, said: “What the group at the CSIR has done is something original and important.”
He said it was “a bit surprising” that, to his knowledge, no one had yet developed the technique discovered by the CSIR even though many companies were manufacturing devices to alter laser beams externally. - Business Report