The Innovation Award was presented at LASER World of PHOTONICS 2023 in six categories. These are the teams and innovations that impressed our jury.
Eighteen innovations, with three in each category, were in the final of the Innovation Award 2023. The overall winner this year was a laser system for industrial production engineering, whose power leaves nothing to be desired: With 100,000 watts, the single-mode DBL 100KW laser from the Israeli company Civan Lasers has enough power to weld 25 to 70 mm thick steels with maximum efficiency. While traditional welding methods reach their limit at these material thicknesses, their high heat input to the material consequently causes problems, and they can only achieve the required penetration depth with the help of complex vacuum technology, the award-wining 100 kW laser produced high-quality welds at atmospheric pressure, reaching a feed rate of up to 40 millimeters per second. Eliminating the vacuum technology and repeated welding passes reduces the cycle times and cuts the welding costs by up to a factor of 30, according to Civan Laser. In the brief interview, the winning team talks about the technical concept behind the laser, its most important target markets – and the already noticeable impacts of the Award.
Unlike in steel processing, the power matters less than the precision and reliability in quantum technologies. With its award-winning single-mode laser diodes HL67001DG & HL69001DG, Ushio has succeeded for the first time in producing 200 milliwatt diodes based on the III-V semiconductor aluminum gallium indium phosphide (AlGaInP) that cover the wavelength range of 660 to 705 nanometers (nm) in CW operation, and can be adjusted in 5 nm increments. But most importantly, the team succeeded in suppressing the typical degradation of the active crystal layer in this wavelength range. According to Ushio, a wavelength of 705 nm for a continuous beam laser with a lifetime performance of thousands of hours without any degradation his unparalleled. In addition, it says that the wall-plug efficiency of the diodes is over 30 percent, that they offer good temperature properties up to 75°C and also Gaussian-like beam characteristics in transverse mode, hence offering potential for quantum and sensor technology, and biophotonics. The company sees fields of application in developing high-precision atomic clocks and in genome analysis with quantum computers, or also in pharma design. Yano Masato Hagimoto, head of the engineering team is delighted with the award: “It’s recognition of our dedication and commitment to master the challenges of AlGaInP-based materials and implement products that are not only innovative but also reliable and efficient.”
The award-winning MEXL (MEmbrane eXternal cavity Laser) technology of the young company Twenty-One Semiconductors GmbH is all about simple and compact laser modules for the visible spectral range. With emissions in the watt range, the green-yellow and orange lasers are suitable in biophotonic applications such as flow cytometry or fluorescence microscopy as a cost-effective alternative to diode-pumped solid-state laser (DPSSLs) or diode lasers. The team relies on an optically pumped laser system that, by design, combines the benefits of solid-state and diode lasers. That means, while the gain is achieved in a micrometer-thin semiconductor membrane, optical elements can be integrated in the external resonator to tailor the laser properties. According to the team, the MEXL gain crystal represents the core of the membrane laser. It is based on the aforementioned semiconductor membrane sandwiched between two optically transparent heat spreaders. The laser emission wavelength can be adjusted by altering the material composition of the membrane.
Thanks to the innovative design, the linear pump geometry requires no focusing optics. In combination with the broad absorption of the semiconductor, that paves the way for the ultra-compact design with minimal wavelength and mode quality of requirements for the optical pump. Nevertheless, the membrane lasers based on the MEXL gain crystals ensure excellent beam quality over a wide spectral range and low noise operation. That allows direct modulation and wavelength tuning during operation. At the same time, its power range can be scaled from the milliwatt to multi-watt range. According to the company, optical elements can be inserted in the open cavity for tailored emission properties, for example, for narrow linewidth operation. The jury presented the Innovation Award to this innovative laser concept in the Lasers and optoelectronics category.
A measuring device for single lenses or doublets from the JENOPTIK subsidiary Trioptics also impressed the jury. The newly developed “LensGage” module is an addition to the established OptiSurf® LTM (Lens Thickness Measurement) device that allows non-contact center thickness measurement of lenses. It is no longer necessary for this measurement by low-coherence interferometry to determine the material and its refractive index beforehand, since the new module can identify the glass material by its group refractive index. To carry out the software-based measurement, the sample is fixed between two glass plates that form the boundary of the measuring cell. According to Trioptics, the center thickness measurement has a measuring accuracy of 1.5 micrometers. Because the group refractive index is also determined with maximum precision (~ 10-4), it is possible to accurately identify the material of unknown lenses. Trioptics also highlights the high thermal stability of the LensGage module and how easy it is to calibrate.
Thorlabs GmbH and the development team at Castor Optics from Canada are behind a photonic lantern that has won the Innovation Award 2023 in the Sensors, test and measurement/Optical Measuring Systems/Imaging category. The lantern is an all-fiber device for the high-precision, efficient modal multiplexing and demultiplexing of optical signals at the transition from single-mode to multimode fibers. The mode-selective nature of the device provides a one-to-one correspondence between the single mode input fibers and each of the modes in the multimode output fiber. While the current version of the device supports two modes, the lantern can scale up to a larger number of modes, which makes the fields of communications, sensing, and imaging interesting. Applications already exist in optical coherence tomography (OCT), where each individual mode transports signals that provide information about the microstructure of the given sample. The device enables virtually loss-free transmission over a wide range of wavelengths with excellent modal separation. Castor quotes values of under 0,1 dB of insertion loss and over 30dB of isolation. Interference-free signal transmission is the key to high-resolution OCT sensor technology. Since the design offers up to 10 times shorter coupling lengths than previous designs – hence it also fits within a standard fiber connector – it is versatile and can be used for a wide range of applications.
Versatility is also one of the advantages of the confocal microscope Luminosa, which won the Award in the Biophotonics and medical engineering category for the Berlin-based company PicoQuant GmbH. The modern microscope with single-photon counting also impresses with its intuitive operation. The system software guides users through typical workflows, and carries out numerous device settings automatically to ensure the quality and reproducibility of the examinations. The microscope enables different time-resolved fluorescence methods that provide more in-depth findings together with the intensity and spectral information of the samples. Typical fields of application are dynamic structural biology at the single-molecule level, cellular mechanism monitoring, cellular membrane mapping, the detection of the local sample environment by reading fluorescent sensors, and applications in chemistry, including characterizing (nano)materials, and studying chemical reactions at the single-molecule level. The hardware is designed for single-photon detection. According to PicoQuant’s Head of Sales Uwe Ortmann, the device is sensitive enough “to detect sugar molecules in a large lake if a kilogram of sugar has been dissolved in it.”
To also allow less experienced researchers to benefit from the sensitivity and versatility without being accompanied by technically trained experts, the software guides them systematically through the respective parameter settings for single-molecule detection, fluorescence correlation spectroscopy (FCS), and for other time-resolved methods such as fluorescence lifetime imaging (FLIM), or fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET). They can also define their measurement and analysis modes, if necessary. PicoQuant invested many years of expert knowledge into the microscope so that even novices can get the best out of these methods. Because most of the settings are automated, the manual workflows can follow a clear and easy-to-understand structure, which prevents inadvertent errors, and improves efficiency.
Since the fluorescence lifetime is characteristic for each fluorophore, it was possible for the company to save relevant data records in the software for all standard fluorescence markers. When the respective dye and measurement frequency are specified, the device selects suitable lasers, laser power, filters, and other settings itself. It thus gives users access to complex expert knowledge so that they can exploit the potential of the fluorescence lifetime measurement. They don’t need to look after the settings for the optics either; that is also carried out automatically. “Thanks to the integration of different cameras, the device adjusts itself without a sample within 20 seconds,” as Ortmann explains, saying that it also uses a spiral scan to create a coordinate system of the entire sample at the start of the microscopy, in which the following detailed examinations can be precisely located - even retroactively.
The high degree of automation allows users to focus fully on the samples and their test design, and to rely on the microscope. The ability to monitor the realtime data during ongoing experiments saves time and material, and boost throughput. Novices also have an extended range of experimental options, since the microscope specifically supports them in their experiments – and allows its filter and optics modules to be replaced, removed, or supplemented without any difficulty. Highly sensitive singular molecule measurements without moving components are possible, as are rapid FLIM-video recordings supported by scan mirrors. A wide selection of lasers, optical components, positioning solutions, and detectors are available for that. This complete package of innovative hardware and software impressed the jury.
“Every single time, the Innovation Award presents impressive ideas and groundbreaking inventions,” says Anke Odouli, Exhibition Director of LASER World of PHOTONICS. This time, the jury examined more than 50 submissions to select the six category awards and the overall winner. “We’re already excited about what ideas we’ll receive for the next round in 2025,” she says.