Lasers shine a route to net zero

Credit: University of Southampton

Scientists are helping to reshape the way manufacturing is done with lasers and demonstrating new ways to cut carbon emissions.

High-power fibre laser technology promises to make manufacturing more efficient and produce huge gains in power efficiency.

The Future Photonics Hub, based at the University of Southampton and at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) National Epitaxy Facility at the University of Sheffield, is working to show how the latest fibre laser technology can be adopted by industry.

Professor Michalis Zervas, director of the Advanced Laser Laboratory, a joined university and industry laboratory embedded in the University of Southampton, and a co-investigator at the hub, said:

I am engaged with and supported by SPI Lasers (now Trumpf Lasers UK) a company, which produces advanced fibre laser technologies for digital manufacturing.

Our conservative calculations show that these new super-efficient fibre lasers could result in roughly 250,000 tons of CO2 reduction per year, just by reducing the electricity that is needed to run the lasers. That does not include the substantial savings accrued because you additionally have a much more efficient manufacturing process.

New lasers could halve energy needs

Professor Zervas said the latest generation of smart fibre lasers and smart beam-shaping technologies could:

  • halve the energy needed for many large material processes
  • make a significant contribution to meeting targets for net zero.

Scientists have developed highly efficient and scalable ways of structuring light achieved uniquely by the fibre technology developed in Southampton.

Using advanced fibre geometries and laser cavities, they can convert electrical power into optical power with more than 40% efficiency, compared to only 2 to 10% in competing laser technologies.

The combination of superior beam shaping and record wall-plug efficiencies means they can achieve 30% faster processing speeds using half the power of a traditional laser.

Technology has wide application

The technology has applications in automotive, aerospace, and health and medical manufacturing, and it is scalable to even be used:

  • in future ultra-compact particle accelerators
  • for cleaning up space debris
  • in treating nuclear waste.

Despite the huge success, the technology is still in its infancy, and fibre lasers are expected to be a $10 billion business by the end of the decade.

Photonics hub works with industry

The Future Photonics Hub was set up in 2015 with £10 million from EPSRC and with contributions from the universities and industry. It combines expertise with state-of-the-art experimental facilities.

It is working with more than 40 companies in sectors including telecommunications, healthcare, defence, and aerospace to rapidly commercialise innovative photonics manufacturing technologies.

Professor Zervas added:

The hub is absolutely critical in taking the ideas we have and the basic technology that we develop into industry.

Find out more about the Future Photonics Hub.

Last updated: 17 August 2021

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