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South Africa Eyes New Laser Source

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Robert C. Pini

The South African government has committed its support for the creation of a national laser facility, using 153 lasers from a terminated South African Atomic Energy Corp. uranium-enrichment project.

When the project ended, physicists persuaded the government not to sell the lasers, but instead to make them available to industrial users and academic researchers who could not otherwise afford the equipment.

The South African National Laser Facility will benefit from more than 150 lasers left idle from a terminated uranium-enrichment project.

Facility supporters have asked for 7 million rand (about $1.2 million) from the government, but the facility will earn additional funding by renting the equipment. Rental terms would make the lasers affordable to smaller research groups while producing enough profit to replace parts and equipment, said Hubertus von Bergmann, who works with Atomic Energy and is organizing the establishment of the laser facility. Already, scientists have rented more than a half dozen lasers, he said.

The salvaged legacy includes excimer, continuous-wave and pulsed CO2, HeNe, Nd:YAG, diode and dye lasers from such manufacturers as Lambda Physik, Spectra-Physics, Edinburgh Instruments, Synrad, Lumonics and Continuum.

The facility's initial activities will focus on high-power gas lasers and applications, solid-state lasers, laser ablation/deposition of materials and environmental monitoring. "What we need to do must be relevant to the South African situation," von Bergmann said.

In academia, researchers plan to use the technology for diagnostics and laser spectroscopy. In industry, the focus is on materials processing and medical applications. Von Bergmann said he expects lasers to find applications in automotive, mining and heavy machine industries, strong sectors in the South African economy.

The facility must hire a staff and choose a location (probably near Pretoria), but the operation should be up to full speed by the end of the year, von Bergmann said.

Photonics Spectra
Jun 1999
Basic ScienceBusinessindustriallight speed

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