UKZN Scientists at the Helm of Exciting Digital Laser Invention
Researchers at South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research - led by Honorary Professor Andrew Forbes of UKZN’s School of Physics and Chemistry and PhD student at the University Mr Sandile Ngcobo - have developed the world’s first digital laser.
Both Forbes and Ngcobo were born in KwaZulu-Natal. Forbes completed his secondary schooling at George Campbell High School in Durban while Ngcobo matriculated from Eastwood High School in Pietermaritzburg.
Laser technology forms an essential part of everyday life: being used in devices for laser lighting displays in entertainment, office equipment, DVD players and even bar code scanners in retail stores.
In conventional lasers, the shape of the light that is emitted is either not controlled at all, or a single shape is selected by expensive optics. For the first time the CSIR team has expertly demonstrated that this can all be done inside the laser.
The ground-breaking research has uncovered the potential to digitally control laser emissions in real-time, hence the name ‘digital laser’.
‘Our digital laser uses the LCD as one of its mirrors fitted at one end of the laser cavity,’ said Forbes, who is the leader of the Mathematical Optics Research Group at CSIR.
‘Just as with LCD televisions, the LCD inside the laser can be sent pictures to display. When the pictures change on the LCD inside, the properties of the laser beams that exit the device change accordingly.’
In an experiment at the CSIR’s laboratories in Pretoria, the team programmed the LCD to play a video of a selection of images representing a variety of desired laser modes. The result was that the laser output changed in real-time from one mode shape to another.
‘The dynamic control of laser modes could open up many future applications, from communications to medicine. Our device represents a new way of thinking about laser technology and we see it as a new platform on which future technologies may be built,’ explained Forbes.
Ngcobo, whose input in the experimental work formed part of his PhD studies, believes the research demonstrates the ability within the CSIR to lead innovation in this field.
‘I believe the digital laser will be a “disruptive” technology. This is technology which may change the status quo and which could create new markets and value networks in the near future. The research into the digital laser continues. It adds to the CSIR’s strong track record in the development of laser technology in mathematical optics,’ said Ngcobo.
Minister of Science and Technology, Mr Derek Hanekom, said the discovery was a clear indication of the potential for extraordinary scientific innovation in South Africa. ‘The fact that the world’s first digital laser should come from our country is testimony to the calibre of scientists that South Africa has,’ he said.
Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of College: Agriculture, Engineering and Science, Professor Deo Jaganyi, said the cutting-edge research was a high profile achievement for both UKZN and South Africa in the international scientific research arena.
- Barrington Marais
Photographs: Independent Newspapers