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SPIE Professional July 2011

Green photonics shine in industry

By Mike Hatcher and Kathy Sheehan

Clean energy generation through solar photovoltaics and the energy-saving potential of solid-state lighting are usually the first things that come to mind when looking at environmental credentials of photonics technology.

But those increasingly valuable applications are by no means the limit of the possibilities. And as the environmental agenda becomes more prominent in global politics, it's a good time for the photonics community to be highlighting these less obvious "eco-friendly" technologies.

One key area where green photonics shines is advanced manufacturing, in which photonics-based techniques can produce stronger, lighter components and ways to fabricate such components with a lower overall environmental impact.

As speakers and attendees noted at SPIE's first Eco-Photonics event in Strasbourg, France, in March, one highly evident trend is the way in which high-power lasers used in materials production and manufacturing processes have become dramatically smaller and more energy-efficient in recent years.

Laser sources are continually revolutionizing product design as well, and this makes them a key element for a sustainable economy.

In a keynote paper at SPIE Eco-Photonics, Berit Wessler of OSRAM and Ursula Tober of VDI Technologiezentrum outlined the direct environmental benefits arising from new product designs that have been enabled by a switch to laser-based manufacturing techniques.

In "Green Photonics: the role of photonics in sustainable product design," Wessler and Tober also provide a broad overview of laser-based and other technological advances and government policies that are accelerating the development of green photonics technologies and promoting their adoption into society.

Their paper is available as an open-access article from the SPIE Digital Library.

Advantages of using lasers

Lasers have found major industrial applications in crash-safe car bodies, wind-turbine blades, and fuel injection nozzles, among others, the authors say. "The trend towards product customisation and the growing importance of industrial design, as observed most notably in consumer electronics, will benefit greatly from the flexibility, rapid reconfigurability, and minimal wastage of laser-based manufacture," they write.

Wessler and Tober point to other advantages of industrial lasers:

• Laser surface treatment via thin-film coating or surface modification results in increased product durability, avoiding chemical consumption.

• Laser processing allows the use of new lightweight materials, such as aluminum, titanium, or composite materials instead of iron and steel, with consequent improvements in strength and weight.

• Vehicles built using lightweight laser-processed structures require less energy consumption in use.

• Small spot sizes (1μm instead of 10μm) used in laser cutting and welding techniques reduce the processed area and can thus save valuable material.

The full, lifetime environmental impact and importance of solar cells, optical communications, sensor networks, and other photonics technologies are also discussed in the paper.

SPIE supports EU investments

SPIE leaders have recommended that the European Commission continue its investment in high-tech laser research projects such as HiPER and ELI and establish an ecosystem that supports the complete innovation cycle for optics and photonics products and systems.

Responding to a request for input on proposed changes to EU research and innovation funding, SPIE leaders also recommended increased support for partnerships between large and smaller enterprises.

More information: SPIE.org/fundEU

Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4201110.07

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