A View of the New: Ultrafast Lasers, Photonics West Highlights, and Mi-Light
As a new member of the SME Industrial Laser Community with a focus on recently adopted industrial laser technology – ultrafast lasers – it’s appropriate to follow Ron Schaeffer’s inaugural blog for the SME Laser Channel with a perspective from February’s Photonics West conference. And yes, I’m jumping from that blog’s focus on the early history of light to the present “leading-edge” of laser technology. So hold on to your seats as we accelerate into the ultrafast lane!
For those of you unfamiliar with ultrafast lasers, they produce pulses of light so short (in the range of trillionth of a second (or ‘picosecond’) down to a quadrillionth of a second (or ‘femtosecond’)) that they can freeze the short-duration motion of molecules to produce images of what happens on the molecular level. Since all of the photons of the output of these specialized laser sources are packed into such a short time duration, pulses from commercially available ultrafast (also known as ultrashort-pulsed) lasers have peak powers on the Megawatt level and beyond. With such high peak powers, very interesting physics come into play as the ultrafast laser output is focused on nearly any material of interest – often glass, metals, ceramics, and semiconductors. At high enough intensities, a process called “cold” or “athermal” ablation occurs – material is removed through vaporization rather than melting (as would happen with longer-pulsed or CW sources). This allows removal of material on the micron- and nano-scale, very controllably and repeatably, and increasingly, at rates that make processing of delicate structures such as cardiac stents and highly precise fuel injection nozzles commercially feasible. The special properties of ultrafast laser material processing have made many companies take note, and there were many interesting updates at Photonics West (San Francisco, February 1-6).
(Image and Photo Credit: IMRA America, Inc.)
Ultrafast lasers were a hot topic throughout the event-packed week of Photonics West. During a panel on global photonics markets, TRUMPF’s Vice Chairman Peter Leibinger emphasized that his company is providing technology for “cold” material processing as a key for making next generation products in the consumer electronics, medical, and automotive arenas. His words were backed up on the exhibition floor, where TRUMPF, along with several other laser companies such as IPG, Coherent (Lumera), SpectraPhysics, IMRA, Amplitude Systemes, and JDSU (Time Bandwidth Products) brought forth either new or improved offerings of ultrashort pulsed lasers, and in some cases, laser-based tools, to meet growing demands for industrial solutions.
Beyond the exhibition floor, full sessions on ultrafast laser designs and applications enabled by ultrafast lasers were held throughout the week. And during the prestigious PRISM Awards, presented midweek, the award for the “Advanced Manufacturing” category was made to Nanoscribe for an ultrafast laser-based 3D printer. This tool performs 3D lithography based on two-photon polymerization, enabled by ultrashort pulses and capable of creating very high resolution processing with features as small as 160 nm in a writing area of 100 x 100 mm2.
Moving attention to other activities at Photonics West that may be of more direct interest to readers of the SME Laser Channel, the SME Industrial Laser Community held a meeting at Directed Light’s booth on Wednesday afternoon, giving members a chance to catch up and focus on upcoming activities. The National Photonics Initiative (NPI) held an Advanced Manufacturing Subcommittee meeting to work on developing a strategy and plan for a national policy making photonics a key cornerstone of U.S. Advanced Manufacturing. Mark Taggart of Laser Mechanisms, Neil Ball of Directed Light, and I (all members of the ILC) have been deeply involved in the work of this Subcommittee since Mark was tapped as its Chair for fall 2012 to fall 2013. For more information, see www.lightourfuture.org.
Michelle Stock and Deborah Robbins (SME ILC) at the Mi-Light tabletop during Photonics West 2014
And to close this post and introduction to new things, please note that Mi-Light, the Michigan Photonics Industry Cluster, is now part of the industrial laser landscape. Launched in April 2013, this trade association has grown to 28 Members from 11 Founding Members at the time of the launch. Mi-Light is a microcosm of what is happening within the NPI. We have received funding from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) to support initiatives including education, supply chain mapping, advocacy, and networking. For more information, or to say “hi” to a new member of the SME ILC, please visit www.mi-light.org.
About the Author:
Dr. Michelle L. Stock is President of mlstock consulting, offering business development and marketing services primarily focused on the ultrafast laser market. She has been involved in commercializing fiber lasers for nearly 20 years, starting with her work as an engineer, product manager, and marketing manager at ultrafast fiber laser specialist IMRA America. More recently, she co-founded Arbor Photonics, a leader in large mode area high-brightness optical fiber for short-pulsed fiber lasers, which was recently acquired by nLight. Her roles at Arbor Photonics included developing product road-maps, finding and securing the first OEM customers, and funding development projects through grants. Dr. Stock has a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering with a major in optics from the Center for Ultrafast Optical Science at the University of Michigan. She has over 45 publications and 3 patents. She is involved with the SME ILC, OSA, SPIE and the National Photonics Initiative, and is the first Chair of Mi-Light, the Michigan Photonics Industry Cluster.