CSIR
The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa is one of the leading scientific and technology research, development and implementation organisations in Africa. It undertakes directed research and development for socio-economic growth.

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Laser-based research and development at the CSIR:

An overview

Current laser research at the CSIR

The CSIR houses a core of laser technology knowledge and expertise accumulated through research, development and implementation of laser-based technologies. The organisation continues to form partnerships to strengthen the science, engineering and technology base in this research domain. Current laser-based research focuses on:

Novel laser sources
Ultra short physics spectroscopy
Mathematical optics
Biophotonics
Lasers Material Processing

Novel laser sources
Currently, CSIR research into novel laser sources concentrates on robust and efficient pulsed lasers. The researchers concentrate their efforts on mid-infrared (MIR) laser sources, on robust ultra-short pulse lasers and on electronic feedback control.

Mid-infrared (MIR) laser sources

A number of applications in industry, medicine and defence require laser sources, which operate in the mid-infrared wavelength region of 2 to 4 µm. CSIR research focuses on improved laser sources for the 2 µm region and on ’non-linear’ wavelength conversion to longer wavelengths.

Robust ultra-short pulse lasers
Lasers that emit pulses of a few pico-seconds (ps, 10-12s) in length and have a relatively high energy per pulse are very effective in a number of applications. The largest market for these lasers is in materials processing for micro-machining applications, since ultra-short pulse lasers are able to machine much finer structures than conventional lasers. Current commercial ultra-short pulse laser systems are very complex and therefore expensive and not very reliable. In addition, many applications require more average power than current commercial systems can deliver. CSIR research in this area concentrates on novel concepts for robust high-power operation of these lasers. Another application that requires a similar type of laser is lunar laser ranging (LLR). The CSIR is involved in an LLR project, where the aim is to measure the distance to the moon within a few millimetres in accuracy using a novel ultra-short pulse laser.

Electronic control of lasers
Electronic feedback control has the potential to substantially enhance the stability and performance of lasers. In collaboration with academia, CSIR electronic engineers and laser physicists perform joint research on novel control concepts for lasers. These will enable the group to develop new lasers with improved performance.

The synchronisation of pulsed lasers with external systems with high accuracy is also under investigation.

Ultra-short science and spectroscopy
A group of researchers at the CSIR are focusing their research efforts on:

  • Pump-probe spectroscopy of biological samples with a specific emphasis on light harvesting complexes
  • Femtosecond chemistry with the primary aim of understanding the reaction dynamics of specific chemical reactions
  • The development of high-power femtosecond systems based on OPCPA amplified techniques

A well-equipped laboratory comprising a femtosecond laser system delivering 1 mJ per pulse at 1000Hz and 100 fs as well as a TOPAS OPA system has been established. In addition, a multi-purpose pump-probe experiment is currently being constructed.

The group has well established local research links with both the Laser Research Institute of the University of Stellenbosch and the School of Chemistry of North-West University. The group is currently pursuing joint research collaborations with various international groups.

In addition the group also performs research in atomic and molecular spectroscopy using more conventional laser systems. This is done primarily as a support function for the femtosecond spectroscopy work. The group is supported by a computational chemistry team.


Mathematical optics
In the Mathematical Optics research group, researchers study the various aspects of modern optics, including laser beam shaping, laser beam propagation and novel resonators. Researchers are interested in both the mathematical basis of these fields as well as applications of this research in such diverse areas as optical tweezing in bio-photonics, high energy laser delivery through a turbulence atmosphere, novel gas lenses for variable focal lengths and flat-top beams for studies in high pressure and high temperature physics. Research undertaken is building competency in mathematical algorithms applied in optics, both theoretically and computationally, novel laser resonators, non-linear optics, diffractive optical elements, micro optics, adaptive optics, refractive beam shapers, digital holograms, spatial light modulators and wavefront sensing.


Biophotonics
Applications of optically-based techniques in surgery and medicine continue to increase rapidly. This is mainly due to the fact that such techniques hold a series of inherent advantageous properties compared to more conventional medical techniques. For instance, by applying optical techniques, treatments and diagnostic procedures can be done non-invasively, reducing the inconvenience for the patients as well as the risk of spreading infectious diseases. Furthermore, optically-based medical equipment is typically relatively inexpensive and can also be made transportable, which allows for outpatient treatment and early diagnostics at first level patient care. This is of course of substantial importance with regards to South African conditions, for example in the deployment of medical diagnostic and therapeutic equipment in remote/rural areas.
CSIR researchers in biophotonics focus on the development and improvement of various therapeutic and diagnostic medical applications of lasers. These applications include low level laser therapy for wound healing and photodynamic therapy (PDT) for noninvasive cancer treatment . To facilitate this and future research in novel medical laser applications, a generic biomedical optics test bed facility (BioBed) is currently being established for convenient, risk-free, and cost-effective development and preclinical testing of such applications.
As implied, the field of Biophotonics is highly multidisciplinary. Therefore, to succeed, collaboration between various disciplines, for example physics, medicine, biology, and engineering is crucial. Accordingly, one of the key drivers for establishing the BioBed facility at the CSIR is to facilitate this multidisciplinary biophotonics research collaboration in South Africa. Several local collaborations have already been established with the universities of Rhodes, Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Stellenbosch and the Tshwane University of Technology, together with a number of international collaborations, e.g. with the universities of Lund (Sweden), Ulm (Germany), and St. Andrews (UK).

Laser Materials Processing
Since the invention of the laser in 1960, laser technology has had a profound impact on virtually all spheres of modern life. Because of its spectacular successes over a broad range of applications, laser technology was soon identified as an enabler and a key technology to global competitiveness. This realisation led to the implementation of government sponsored R&D programmes in laser technology in practically every industrialised country around the world. In fields as diverse as telecommunications, medicine and entertainment, laser technology opened up new frontiers. Manufacturing proved to be no exception. In each of the basic disciplines of cutting, joining, milling and drilling, laser technology introduced significant advantages as well as new possibilities.

At the heart of the competitive advantage that laser technology offers over conventional manufacturing techniques, lies exceptional precision and control. To illustrate this point it should be mentioned that the beam from a standard industrial laser source of 4 kW power can readily be focused onto a spot size as small as 0.2 mm in diameter. This gives rise to a power density of over 10 million W/cm2 - enough to overcome the thermal properties of all known engineering materials resulting in melting and vaporisation.

The advantages of a laser-based manufacturing process can be wide and varied depending on the particular application, but more often than not, it includes a combination of high levels of productivity and quality.

In 2000, the CSIR National Laser Centre embarked on a programme aimed at introducing the competitive advantages of advanced laser materials processing to the South African manufacturing industry. Today the materials processing technology in the CSIR is at the forefront of laser-based materials processing in Africa. Laser-based manufacturing processes that were specifically targeted are:

  • Deep penetration welding
  • Surface modification (cladding, hardening, alloying and cleaning)
  • Laser milling
  • Specialised laser cutting, including thick section cutting and 3D profile cutting of sheet metal

The first objective was to establish a capacity for the practical demonstration and application of these processes. This required the establishment of infrastructure in the form of appropriate equipment as well as human capital development (HCD). The HCD process was fast tracked through a technology transfer agreement between the CSIR National Laser Centre and the Fraunhofer Institut für Laser Technik in Aachen, Germany. The infrastructure currently includes:

  • Trumpf TLC 1005 Lasercell: five-axis gantry robot equipped with 5 kW CO2 laser for deep penetration welding of ferrous metals and 3D cutting
  • High-power Nd:YAG facility: eight-axis articulated arm robot equipped with 4.4 kW Nd:YAG laser for deep penetration welding of light metals, laser cladding and transformation hardening
  • Deckel Maho Gildemaister: system for deep precision-laser engraving.

As the respective capabilities gain in maturity, the emphasis is shifting from demonstration and application to a focus on R&D.

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