The Future of Lasers

The Future of Lasers

In the 55 years since its discovery, the laser has become indispensable and plays a significant role in our daily lives, even if we don’t realise it. From catching a vehicle travelling over the speed limit, through surgical applications, to cutting sheets of steel, lasers are used in a variety of industries to improve the way we live our lives and the environment in which we work. And some of the uses are just cool!

Lasers are well established in many manufacturing technologies like our F1 cutter for precision delivery of incredibly powerful cutting and etching of metal.

What are lasers used for?

Lasers many uses stem from its unique properties of high power, precision focus and environmentally friendly operation.

Medical Laser Use

Lasers in medicine have a variety of uses.  The real attraction in this industry (and it’s not the only attraction, or the only industry!) is the delivery of light energy with incredible precision to almost anywhere in the human body. By directing focussed laser beams onto tissue you can efficiently but gently coagulate tumours, activate medicines and make non-contact incisions.

The primary uses of lasers in medicine begin with the obvious: as a cutting tool – a laser scalpel – with minute precision in cutting.

Optical Coherence Tomography is another medical use of lasers: mapping below the surface of human tissue by penetrating the material and bouncing back when the laser hits a sub-surface element, creating a clearer and safer image than x-rays. This can be used to see changes in the bone protein chemistry that couldn’t be detected through other, more traditional techniques (like x-rays).

Lasers can be used to activate medicines too. For the treatment of skin cancers, photodynamic therapy is used, combined with a light-sensitive drug. The laser activates the medicine injected into the cancer cells and destroys them.

LASIK (Laser Assisted Stromal In-situ Keratomileusis) is another use for lasers in medicine: a pulsed laser beam gently reshapes the surface of the cornea to correct vision impairments.  Lasers can also be used to remove cataracts and remove unwanted scars, tattoos, pigmentation of the skin and excessive hair through precision surgery.

As well as cutting, medical lasers can weld too. Used to reattach retinas and close incisions by fusing the skin together, lasers really are a multipurpose tool in the medical industry!

Entertaining & Musical Lasers

In 1982 the compact disc (CD) was released, and became the audio format of choice. The CD player became the first laser-equipped device readily available and found in a great many homes, making music using a laser to read pits in the reflective surface of the CD.

Entertaining displays can also be produced using laser technology, painting images in the air with vibrating mirrors in a visible spectrum or using fog to reflect laser light, as well as single beam lasers moving to the beat of music.

Computing, Printing & Communications with Lasers

Because lasers travel so fast (at the speed of light!), they make an ideal method of communication and information processing and retrieval. Combined with fibre optic cables, laser communication is almost instantaneous and large chunks of data can be transported quickly and with minimal space usage.

Printers increasingly use laser technology. Standard, on-paper printers and copiers use laser technology, but more impressively, so do 3D printers. 3D printers work by creating a 3D solid object from a digital file, layer by layer. 2 methods for completing this technologically impressive feat are Selective Laser Sintering, where material is melted to form layers, and curing a photo-reactive resin with a UV laser one layer at a time. Both of these utilise lasers.

Quantum Information Processing is another method of laser use in computing and technology, using the quantum properties of light to send information that is “quantum encrypted” and guaranteed to be secure by the laws of physics. The method of doing this is quite incredible, and was thought up in the 1980s.

Packets of light (photons) are sent through an optical fibre with the information encoded in the light packet’s polarization. The receiver measures the polarization of this light to retrieve the message encoded within. Because of the properties of quantum mechanics, it would be impossible for anyone to have heard or read the information within the light packet. This technology, already incredible, will only get better as further advancements are made in the construction of quantum computers and fibre optic cable systems, utilising the properties of quantum mechanics in computer processing.

The barcode scanner was another technological advancement in the use of lasers. Back in 1974, the first publicly introduced laser was the barcode scanner in supermarkets. Barcode scanners use a laser beam that scans back and forth so quickly that it appears to the naked eye as a line. Within the scanner a photodiode measures the intensity of the light being reflected back from the black and white pattern and generates a signal that measures the widths of the black bars and white spaces.

Cutting Metals With Lasers

This is our favourite field of laser technology, as it’s where our specialism lies. Our F1 laser cutter is a prime example of the beauty of laser cutting sheet metal, even if we do say so ourselves!

Laser cutting machines that cut paper, wood, textiles and plastics (not something our F1 can do) use a low output power, usually a couple of hundred watts. A higher power would cause these materials to burn on cutting, even catching fire! In sheet metal processing we use cutting machines with power outputs of up to 7 kilowatts. Our F1, for example, has a 4 kilowatt laser, allowing us to cut metal thicknesses of up to 25mm in mild steel, 10mm in aluminium and 12mm in stainless steels. These machines are easily programmed using CAD software and can cut intricate shapes with only the laser cutting nozzle as its tooling.

Not strictly cutting, and not something we can do, lasers can also be used to mark almost anything. Laser marked goods are everywhere. Cables, window panes, car parts, medical instruments, kitchen utensils and animal ID tags are all marked using a laser. Unlike ink, laser marking won’t fade of wear off, and they’re very durable because they result from a modification of the material or by removing the material from the surface.

Etching is something we can do with our F1. Different from marking in that the material is cut in to – so we can only do this on metal – but not cut all the way through.

Lasers in Energy & Propulsion

Potentially clean sources of energy such as fusion have lasers at their heart. Fusion attempts to recreate conditions in the sun in order to generate a clean source of nuclear energy using the power of lasers.

Incredible… if it ever works.

Electron lasers, which need a particle accelerator to function, could one day help us to reach into space by acting as a power source. Conventional particle accelerators are huge – kilometres long – and achieve acceleration through generating huge electric fields inside microwave cavities. To make these smaller, scientists have looked to laser technology, and as this field grows and further research and experiments are completed, particle accelerators will become more and more usable.

Dubbed a “paser”, standing for Particle Acceleration (as opposed to Light Amplification) by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, these smaller, more advanced particle accelerators speed up bundles of electrons by using the same principles as lasers. The difference is that the output – instead of being light – is accelerated electrons travelling in the same direction at a faster speed. To do this, packets of electrons are fired in to a cloud of excited gas which releases a large number of identical photons (like with a laser), that are instantly absorbed by the passing electrons, giving them a boost of energy so that they can move much faster. Incredible.

Lasers & the Environment

Climate change is one of the world’s most immediate challenges, and lasers can help! Lasers can be used to analyse the concentrations of green house gases in the Earth’s atmosphere and monitor their effects on the planet’s ecosystems. This is important to us all because understanding and observing the Earth from space provides a global view of atmospheric composition and processes. With this information we can hope to improve the health of our Earth.

Lasers could therefore be used as the forerunner of a new generation of satellite-based infrared monitoring instruments, as the high spatial resolution and high sensitivity could be used to detect the tiniest concentrations of atmospheric constituents and allow us to quickly affect changes to aid in reversing or mitigating the effects.

The Future of Lasers

When it comes to the future of science and technology we can never say for certain what will happen. But, lasers show every sign of continuing its unique, creative and important role. Nicholas Bigelow, Lee A.

DuBridge Professor of Physics and Optics at the University of Rochester coined it well when he said “The laser is so special because it allows us to harness light in a unique way” “Light is the carrier of the fundamental force that shapes the world as we know it”. Being of such importance, the laser will continue to be at the forefront of technological advancements in all fields. We’re certainly looking forward to those relating to our specialism. The fibre laser being the first of many!

Judging by the technological advancements already made in the last 55 years, laser research will continue and open the fields of medicine, manufacturing and technology to further new and exciting uses of lasers.

On one hand, the continuously higher requirements for technology and material processing and the emergency of new applications for the laser motivate the development of new systems, but on the other, advanced lasers like the “paser” and “LASIK” are paving the way to new applications for lasers. The only conclusion for certain is that lasers will continue to play a significant role in our daily lives, becoming more prevalent as future applications for this technology emerge. Take, for instance, our F1. The technology utilised here was originally designed for fast communications, but now can be used to cut through solid sheets of steel!

Speaking of laser cut steel…

Give Yorkshire Profiles a call or email today, whatever your laser cut metal requirements, and we’ll use the incredible power of our laser to profile metal to your requirements. Or, why not use our online ordering system for simple profiling – it’s quick and easy to use!

Yorkshire Profiles Ltd

Yorkshire Profiles Ltd