Award-Winning Innovations

It feels like LASER World of PHOTONICS 2022 and the months that followed flew by. Let’s look back once again at some special moments, such as the Innovation Award ceremony held on the first day of the trade fair back in April. The panel of 11 judges had initially whittled down the 50+ innovative entries and shortlisted 17 finalists. The stage now belonged to the top innovators in the six individual categories and the overall winner SI Stuttgart Instruments whose tunable ultrashort pulse laser platform Alpha completely wowed the panel of judges and also came out on top in the Laser and Optoelectronics category. You can find out more about the platform and the Stuttgart-based start-up in the latest PHOTONICS interview with SI Managing Director Tobias Steinle.

In the Quantum Technologies category, the panel of judges voted for the ultrafast, superconducting nanowire detectors from Geneva-based firm ID Quantique (IDQ). The parallel-pixel detectors in the company’s award-winning IDQ ID281 series constitute a real breakthrough in single-photon measurement. This is because, unlike the standard superconducting nanowire single-photon detector (SNSPD) designs whose photon-detection performance is limited by photon pile-up effects on the detectors, the patented technology used by IDQ connects an array of SNSPDs in parallel to a single readout circuit. Here, single photons are much less likely to pile up at one pixel, and more than one photon can be resolved in a single detection event thanks to the parallel set-up. According to IDQ, users benefit from unparalleled timing precision, ultra-low noise and latch-free operation. Up to 16 detectors can be integrated into the ID281 system, and each of them can discriminate eight photons at a time; in total, therefore, 128 photons. Paired with picosecond-precise time-tagging, this solution has huge potential for quantum computing and quantum communication, high-precision LiDAR systems, spectroscopy in the infrared wavelength range, and fluorescence lifetime measurement.

The fact that the camera featuring a qCMOS (quantitative CMOS) sensor, which won the Biophotonics and Medical Engineering category, is able to precisely measure the number of image-producing photons demonstrates the swift progress being made with scientific cameras. The sensitivity of Hamamatsu Photonics’ ORCA-Quest is due to the minimal readout noise of the read-out electronics developed in-house. “It is below 0.3 electrons rms—according to the camera’s specifications it is even 0.27 e- rms”, explains Sebastian Beer of Hamamatsu Photonics Deutschland. Below this threshold, the photon number can be resolved with high precision, hence the high sensitivity even in the case of extremely low signal strength. In addition to photon number resolving, the expert says that other highlights of the award-winning 9.4-megapixel camera include its high quantum efficiency and speed as well as its exposure times of up to half an hour. According to the panel of judges, the ORCA-Quest also has the potential to push boundaries in microscopy and in quantum technologies. Regarding the latter, it is interesting that accurate and parallelized observations of quantum states can be achieved with the camera because it quantitatively images the amount of light from ions and neutral atoms and additionally allows for spatial resolution. On account of its wide field of view and its sensitivity, Beer believes that the ORCA-Quest could also be used in astronomical research and in life sciences.

Faster multibeam laser marking

The individualized stamp markings and 2D barcodes, which the top innovation in the Laser Systems for Industrial Production Engineering category generates for an extremely wide variety of different materials, are also high resolution. The award-winning multibeam laser process from French company QiOVA provides metals, precious metals, plastics and even technical glass with small 2D barcodes that sometimes measure no more than 500 micrometers (µm). This type of marking, which is hardly visible to the human eye, contains an individualized, tamper-proof set of information which can be read at any time. Instead of having a single laser beam wander over the surface via scanning optics, QiOVA’s award-winning multibeam process uses a highly efficient solution whereby the marking is carried out with a single laser pulse. An array simultaneously directs dozens of beamlets onto the workpiece. This software-controlled process provides up to 20 products per second with individual 2D codes. The throughput increases to up to 1,000 codes per second without individualization. At the heart of this system are so-called liquid-crystal-on-silicon spatial light modulators (LCOS-SLM) which deflect the laser beams. This phase modulation is like a virtual hologram, which patterns the light intensity at the focus of the focusing lens. Thanks to the high-tech beam guidance and the stamp marking with a laser pulse, the process achieves very high code quality and readability. The energy input into the materials is also minimized, which is important for sensitive surfaces. In light of increasing demand for track & trace solutions and the trend for product individualization in Industry 4.0, the multibeam laser process developed by the team headed up by the company’s President and CEO Florent Thibault has huge potential for the future.

Molded and 3D-printed fused silica glass

Whilst the QiOVA process can even mark glass without any microcracks, the winner of the Optics / Manufacturing Technology for Optics category has fully developed a process for shaping fused silica glass at low temperatures using injection molding and 3D printing. The innovative and patented process from Glassomer GmbH not only boasts impressive design freedom with simultaneous high-precision execution, but the new approach also hugely reduces the processing work involved. “Producing fused silica glass used to be difficult because the melting point is very high, and the cooled glass is very hard. It can only really be processed with diamond-tipped heads”, says Thomas Fujimoto, Business Development and Sales Manager at the Freiburg-based start-up. The team adopts a different approach. It mixes ultra-pure fused silica glass powder with an organic binder. A liquid base material is produced for 3D printing and a granulate is produced for injection molding. Once printed or molded into the desired shape, the components go through a two-stage debinding and sintering process, which removes the binder and compacts the glass bodies. This results in highly transparent fused silica glass components which, thanks to the adjustable precise shaping, have very smooth surfaces with minimal reflection losses. What’s more, according to Fujimoto, the energy expenditure is reduced to a fraction of that of the conventional process. The team sees optics and medical engineering as well as the solar and automotive industries as target markets.

Laser-acoustic methods for spot-weld inspection

XARION Laser Acoustics GmbH’s award-winning innovation in the category of Sensors, Test and Measurement / Optical Measuring Systems / Imaging is also aimed at users in the automotive industry. The Vienna-based company has developed a laser-acoustic process for robot-supported spot-weld inspection. The technology is based on XARION’s optical microphone, a miniaturized Fabry-Pérot etalon, which makes it possible to measure tiny changes in the refractive index caused by a sound wave in air. This enables a completely new approach to non-contact ultrasonic testing of spot welds. To date, these have been tested by hand using contact gel as part of quality control. However, an automated process is sought since there are a large number of spot welds on vehicle bodies. XARION therefore integrates the optical microphone and a fiber-coupled laser into a matchbox-sized inspection head. The laser generates a broadband, guided ultrasonic wave, which passes through the body structure. After the wave has traveled through the welding point, the optical microphone “hears” the ultrasound radiated into the air without contact—and detects defective spot welds by examining changes in the sonic image. The compact dimensions of the inspection head ensure that even areas that are difficult to access can be tested. XARION developed the method in cooperation with the automotive manufacturer Porsche. But also, the aerospace industry—XARION recently shipped one of its test systems to Airbus—and semiconductor manufacturers are showing a great deal of interest; especially given that the non-contact acoustic and fully automatable quality inspection can also detect defects in the sub-mm range. The award-winning team highlights another two advantages of its process: “The system operates with an otherwise unmatched tolerance, which makes it ideal for use with robots. The measurements are reliable even if there is a misalignment of several millimeters.” In addition to this robustness, there are also huge economic advantages compared to previous manual inspection methods. “Due to the increased test throughput rate and the elimination of personnel costs, test costs can be reduced by a factor of 10”, explains XARION's Project Manager Application Development, Dr. Josef Pörnbacher.

Innovation Award 2023 is just around the corner

This quick run-through of the six award-winning products and processes demonstrates the innovative potential of photonics. It is an enabler of progress across an extremely wide range of industries and research fields. In addition to the award winners mentioned, there were also 11 other finalists and more than 30 other entries. “We are of course extremely keen to maintain this very high level in terms of the quality and quantity of entries for the next Innovation Award 2023, which we will again be organizing together with our partner EUROPA SCIENCE in the course of LASER World of PHOTONICS from June 27 to 30, 2023”, explains Exhibition Director Anke Odouli. All exhibitors are therefore invited and encouraged to start submitting their new developments to the trade fair team.

You can find out more here.