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Powerful new pulsed laser to boost car production

29 May 2019

PULSE consortium receives a grant of € 5.2 million from EU via the H2020 program, comprising partners from six countries.

A team of European scientists is developing a new pulsed laser system, similar to that developed by Gerard Mourou, the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics winner, to cut and shape ultra-high-strength industrial materials that are notoriously difficult to process at high speed, while producing significantly less waste.

With the ability to cut and shape ultra-high-strength boron steel up to one thousand times faster than existing technology, the pulsed laser looks set to boost the car industry, say its developers, "reducing material wastage by 10%, chassis costs by 5%, and manufacturing time by two-thirds."

Operating at 1.5 km/s, the new laser is specified to be powerful enough to cut the hardest boron steel used in car construction at one cubic centimetre per minute – which is more than a thousand times faster than existing technology that currently ablates steel at one cubic millimetre per minute.

Exerting an average power of 2.5kW, or 100kW in a single pulse, and with repetition rates up to 1GHz (one thousand times more rapid than the current 1MHz upper limit), the laser will have the control and capbility to etch moulds for vehicle parts at micron-scale accuracy as well as micro-weld dissimilar metals for solar thermal absorbers. Aiming to improve car manufacturing speed and efficiency, while reducing the potential production costs and environmental impact, the new pulse laser system has received a €5 million development grant from the European Commission.

Boron steel cutter

Boron steel, which is used in car bodies because of its super strength, is so durable that it is often difficult to cut or shape. The processes used to ensure its durability usually remove many of the steel's fundamental properties, such as the workability. Although boron steel can be cut with a plasma arc torch, (a tool that cuts using high pressure, accelerated jet of hot plasma ), this can instantly heat the metal to over 650 ºC (1,200 ºF) and is not as precise or as quick as a pulse laser.

Going by the acronym PULSE, the consortium behind the powerful new laser draws on expertise from 11 research institutions and industry partners from six different European countries, coordinated by Tampere University in Finland.

Project coordinator, Dr Regina Gumenyuk commented, “While ultrashort-pulse laser technology has been around for decades, breakthroughs have meant it has become something of a buzzword, being awarded the latest Nobel Prize for physics, and increasingly being deployed in industrial production.

"Laser technology exists today that can cut boron steel, but it is far too slow for any large scale production. By harnessing the unique characteristics of patent protected tapered double-clad fibre amplifiers power-scaled multichannel laser, the PULSE project will create unparalleled high-power beam qualities, with M2<1.1, and pulse energies of 2.5 µJ to 250 µJ.”

Environmental impact

The new system looks set to have what the developers call “a positive environmental impact, by being so efficient that waste products will be reduced.” Dr Gumenyuk added, “PULSE is committed to improving manufacturing, but also reducing its impact on the environment, therefore we can confirm that a 10% reduction in waste products is certainly achievable."

The laser system is expected to enable an improved digital design to lower vehicle chassis weight with consequent benefits for fuel economy and an increase in the range of electric vehicles. The consortium anticipates a prototype to be ready as soon as 2021.

The PULSE consortium received a grant of € 5 206 207.50 from the EU via the H2020 programme and is made up of partners from six countries:

  • United Kingdom (Aston University and Modus Research & Innovation Ltd)
  • Finland (Ampliconyx OY)
  • Germany (Lunovu and Hochschule Mittweida)
  • Greece (Nanotypos OE, Foundation for Research and Technology HELLAS, and Prime Laser Technology Iliaka Systimata Thermansi Anonimi Viomichaniki Emporiki Etaireia)
  • Italy (Centro Richerche Fiat and Onostampi SRL)
  • Latvia (Ceram Optec Sia)

Objectives of PULSE in detail

The acronym PULSE stands for High-Power Ultrafast LaSErs using Tapered Double-Clad Fibre (Call H2020-ICT-2018-2). The CORDIS website, which describes the aims of European collaborations, states:

“A world record power 2.5kW laser providing from picosecond- down to femtosecond-pulses at repetition rates up to 1GHz with excellent beam quality is being developed and brought to the market at highly competitive costs enabling widespread industrial uptake. By harnessing the unique characteristics of patent protected tapered double-clad fiber amplifiers power-scaled multichannel laser, unparalleled high-power beam qualities, M2<1.1, and pulse energies 2.5µJ to 250µJ will be achieved.

“Using the state-of-the-art highly stable laser diodes as seed lasers allowing parameter flexibility by ultrafast electrical control of pulse duration and repetition rate will a broad range of high-power laser processing application requirements to be met. An extremely stable advanced all-fiber based configuration allow development of a compact ultrashort pulse laser system."

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