SA develops world's first digital laser

Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom attended the announcement and said that it was proof of the talent in South Africa. (DST)

Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom attended the announcement and said that it was proof of the talent in South Africa. (DST)

Researchers at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) on Tuesday announced they had developed the world's first digital laser, which the researcher responsible for the breakthrough describes as a "disruptive technology" that could change traditional manufacturing, communications and electronic devices.

In a traditional laser, the laser beam is shaped inside a box with two mirrors – the curvature of these mirrors determines the size and shape of the beam. If a researcher, company or manufacturer requires a different beam, they either have to replace one of the mirrors in the laser or manipulate the beam once it comes out of the laser using a spatial light modulator. Lasers cost thousands of rands, and altering them is a lengthy and costly exercise.

The CSIR team, which is part of the National Laser Centre, has shown it is possible to alter the beam from inside the laser by replacing one of the mirrors with a computer interface. The research was published in scientific journal Nature Communications last month.

The computer interface is "like a television which displays the image you're watching", said Professor Andrew Forbes, chief scientist and research group leader in the National Laser Centre's mathematical optics group, at the press briefing at the CSIR campus in Pretoria. "The basic idea is to digitally create the desired hologram," which acts as a spatial light modulator, he said.

To build a laser, you require "a medium that can amplify light, something to excite the medium and a box made of two mirrors that bounces the light back and forward", said Forbes. "We replaced one of the mirrors with our little television set."

With the digital laser, it does not cost anything to alter the laser beam shape or size.

Intellectual property
Sandile Ngcobo, a PhD candidate in the research unit, was the one who realised it was possible to digitally manipulate a laser beam from inside the laser. "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 next few years."

Forbes said the intellectual property sits with the CSIR, although he mentioned that under South African law, part of it belongs to the inventor.

His unit was spinning out a company in related technologies, but he said they were still deciding whether the digital laser should form part of its technology bouquet, or whether it should undergo further development and be spun out into another company.

Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom also attended the announcement of the laser, and said this was proof of the talent in South Africa. "This is an advance in a technology that has a vast array of applications. The digital laser opens a whole new world of opportunity," he said, emphasising that "technological advancements have to improve the lives of our people".

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards. Read more from Sarah Wild

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