2013 German Future Prize awarded for ultrashort-pulse laser technology

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Scientists from Bosch, Trumpf, Jena University and Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering (IOF) have been awarded the 2013 German Future Prize for their collective effort in transforming the ultrashort-pulse laser into an effective series-production tool. The award honours top scientific work that shows a high level of economic potential.

In December, German President Joachim Gauck presented Jens König of Bosch, Dirk Sutter of Trumpf and Stefan Nolte of Fraunhofer IOF with the award for establishing ultrashort-pulse (USP) lasers as a new tool for industrial production. This highly respected prize has been awarded annually since 1997 and comes with €250,000 prize money.

Controlling the properties of laser processed materials can be extremely difficult. A laser beam directed at a piece of metal will cause the metal to heat up and partially vaporise and melt. This can cause imperfections to develop, meaning that manufacturers have to rework the material which costs time and money. In addition, some materials such as diamond and sapphire cannot be successfully processed in this way.

However, an ultra-short-pulse (USP) laser can remove - or ablate - a thin layer of material measuring just a few nanometres. A computer-controlled mirror system ensures that the laser pulses focus on the correct spot. ‘By cleverly selecting the right pulse duration, pulse energy and focusing, the material is heated so quickly and forcefully that it is instantly vaporised,’ said Nolte, professor of Experimental and Laser Physics at Friedrich-Schiller University who also works at the Fraunhofer IOF.

Previously, these lasers were rarely used outside of research labs because of the challenges in designing laser beams that would meet the rigorous demands of industrial manufacturing. However, the award-winning academic and industry partnership succeeded in implementing USP lasers into precision production machines, enabling the USP laser to become a tool for factory use. To achieve this, Bosch experts researched the requirements and Trumpf manufactured reliable high-performance USP lasers with the correct specifications. 

The innovative technology offers contactless processing of virtually any material. Universally deployable, USP lasers drill, cut, structure or mill to almost any design. USP lasers are already being used in the manufacture of extremely fine nozzles for gasoline injection valves and of medical stents, as well as to cut strengthened glass for smart phone displays. By the end of 2013, some 30 million parts manufactured with the help of USP lasers were delivered to Bosch customers alone.