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Ultrashort-Pulse Laser Wins German Future Prize

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The academic and industry partnership that moved ultrashort-pulse lasers out of the research lab and onto the factory floor was awarded the 2013 German Future Award this week by German Federal President Joachim Gauck. The “Deutscher Zukunftspreis” recognizes excellence in the arts, economics, technology, engineering or science.

German Federal President Joachim Gauck (far left) presents certificates to 2013 German Future prizewinners (second left to right) Drs. Stefan Nolte, Jens König and Dirk Sutter. 

The prize, which includes €250,000, was presented to the team of Drs. Stefan Nolte, Jens König and Dirk Sutter for establishing ultrashort-pulse lasers as a new tool for industrial production. König is a researcher at Bosch GmbH, Sutter heads R&D of ultrashort-pulse lasers at Trumpf Laser GmbH + Co. KG, and Nolte is a professor of Experimental and Laser Physics at the Friedrich Schiller University and at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering.

The foundation of their work was conducted through the PRIMUS and PROMPTUS projects, both sponsored by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and coordinated by Bosch.

At Bosch, ultrashort laser pulses are key to the precision engineering of a number of products. The application shown here is the drilling of extremely tiny holes into a gasoline high-pressure injection valve (the laser is set higher than normal for illustration purposes). Bosch, with teammates Trumpf and the University of Jena, received the 2013 German Future Prize for this technology. Courtesy of Bosch.

The award for innovation and technology recognizes exceptional scientific achievements with high economic potential. “It is precisely this combination that defines the innovative strength of our country and safeguards our prosperity and welfare,” Gauck said of the award, which has been given annually since 1997. One cannot apply for the prize — nominations are made by a select group of high-ranking institutions and judging is conducted by a panel of independent science and business experts.

The ultrashort-pulse laser, which emits up to 24,000 pulses of incredibly high energy in a fraction of a second, processes almost any material gently, precisely and with high productivity. It drills ultrafine holes in metal, cuts medical stents from tiny polymer tubes, shatterproofs touch screens for smartphone displays, structures the surfaces of thin-film solar cells, and can also cut through ultrathin plastic foil, brittle ceramic components and diamonds.

“With the ultrashort-pulse laser we’ve opened a door into a new realm — and we won’t know its precise size or full details about it for a very long time,” said Dr. Peter Leibinger, vice chairman of Trumpf GmbH and president of the Laser Technology and Electronics Div. “That is why microprocessing using lasers like these is a production technology of the future — and German companies are the world leaders here. We regard the award of the German Future Prize as reflecting the industrial and political relevance of our joint innovations, which is why we’re very proud to receive it.”

Trumpf noted that the award comes at a decisive phase for the laser, as the technology is entering new sectors of mass production and replacing conventional methods such as mechanical drilling, eroding or chemical etching, and also enabling new products that were previously impossible to manufacture using conventional methods.

A human hair approximately 100 µm
thick has been threaded into one of the minute holes in a Bosch gasoline direct-injection system to provide a size comparison. The very sharp edges and very smooth inside walls, drilled into the metal using an ultrashort pulse laser, helps to finely atomize the fuel. (Courtesy of Bosch. 

“It is expected that the production figures will continue to rise steeply in the future, since the technology offers great advantages for numerous fields of application,” Sutter said.

The process is unique in that it only heats the material locally, and so intensely that excess material is ejected and vaporized before the heat can be transferred. This enables areas just a few microns in diameter to be ablated — with no melt residue, no heat-affected zone and no need for refinishing.

At Bosch alone, the company said, nearly 30 million products have already been manufactured using the technology. They include the production of lambda sensors, which help with exhaust treatment, among other things; drilling the extremely fine nozzles in its gasoline direct-injection valves; and adding a drainage groove to the sealing connection of a common-rail injector, which is important for sealing off the diesel injection.

Photonics dominated the 2013 German Future Prize competition, as the other two finalist teams were also cited for innovations in the field. The team from Coherent GmbH & Co. KG in Göttingen was selected for an innovative excimer laser system for display manufacturing, and a team from Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich and Philips Technologie GmbH in Aachen was selected for its new high-efficiency dyes for white LEDs.  

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Mar 2014
BiophotonicsBoschBusinessCoherentConsumerDeutscher ZukunftspreisDirk SutterElectronics & Signal AnalysisenergyEuro NewsEuropeGerman Future PrizeGermanyindustrialindustrial manufacturingJenaJens KonigLMUMaterials & ChemicalsPhilipsSchillerStefan NolteTrumpfultrashort pulselasers

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