Ever since the day the User Facility research group doors were yanked open to institutions of higher learning by the CSIR National Laser Centre (NLC) some three years ago, South African universities – at least those that have laser and photonics activity – saw it as a new dawn.
Elsewhere on the African continent, students and scientists look at it covetously. The Centre is experiencing a steady increase of foreign scientists and students who are visiting the User Facility to utilise these lasers for their research.
The User Facility forms part of the CSIR NLC’s higher education institutions research group led by Dr Paul Motalane. Chief scientist Prof Andrew Forbes currently manages the facility and is the pioneer of this project.
User Facility senior scientist, Dr Lorinda Wu says that most of African Laser Centre (ALC) members – including students – are forced to come to South Africa if they want to employ lasers in their research. The CSIR National Laser Centre is also a key node of the African Laser Centre, hence this facility is open to African scientists and students. However, for them to use the facility there needs to be a specific and approved project for them to be able to access this facility.
In South Africa, universities were unable to keep up with exorbitant laser prices and their components. The facility’s objective, notes Wu, is to also encourage research collaborations and break the proverbial silo mentality. “For students, the facility prepares them for the real world because by the time they join the industry, they have an idea on how lasers work and for scientists, this facility opens up a whole new world of bleeding-edge laser,” she says. “The Centre’s user facility remains a critical facility.”
She adds that the facility is a place where universities and industry experts – such as the CSIR laser scientists – meet to advance laser research. “We have a facility here that other institutions do not have and we can learn more from collaborating with them instead of working in silos.” When Wu’s group loans these lasers to the universities, they do so for free. “We provide laser, we install them and we maintain them,” she says.
The User Facility comprises five well-equipped laboratories with a combination of older inherited equipment, and recently purchased new equipment after a R12 million investment from the National Research Foundation (NRF) through Prof Andrew Forbes. The User Facility has hosted over 100 staff and students over the past few years, covering disciplines from physics, chemistry and engineering to biology and animal health sciences.
The User Facility seeks to encourage cross-disciplinary research as the future, and has invested in the fields of biophysics; biophotonics; nanophotonics; and quantum information.
About Dr Wu
This 37-year-old Taiwan-born researcher moved to South Africa with her mother when she was eight years old and they settled in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth. Wu did her schooling in the Windy City – as Port Elizabeth has become synonymous with its gusty winds – until her doctorate in physics. She joined the CSIR in December last year.
“The real reason I came to the CSIR is based on my preference to do research,” she says. “I just find research fascinating, the fact that you are always curious to discover new things and be at the cutting-edge innovation and technology.”
Although Wu is still relatively new at the CSIR, she is hoping to do research on laser and materials characterisation – this forms part of her doctoral training. “We need materials characterisation to understand and exploit its processes,” she says.
Before joining the CSIR, Wu worked at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University as a project manager in the fibre optics group where she was involved in characterising an effect called polarisation mode dispersion – a process that places a limit on a maximum speed at which data is transmitted through an optical fibre.
Her research interests are lying in semiconductors and materials research.
Wu loves music and regards herself as eclectic.
CSIR Strategic Communications and Stakeholder Relations
Mzimasi Gcukumana, email: MGcukumana@csir.co.za