It is vital that South Africa has an in-depth understanding of the impact photonics-based technologies will have on its economic development, as they underpin the communication systems and sensors needed to drive the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
The country also needs to ensure that it can develop, engineer and incorporate new photonics-based technologies into its economy and people’s daily lives, says Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) National Laser Centre (NLC) research implementation manager Hardus Greyling.
Laser technology – key to the advancement of manufacturing, processing, communications and sensing in all modern economies – is an integral part of photonics-based technologies.
The biggest market for laser-based technologies is in the information and communication technology (ICT) sector, with research mainly focused on how to use photonics-based technologies to increase data transfer-rates and volume, as well as how to better secure data transfer.
South Africa does not have the capabilities to manufacture the core devices to support the ICT sector; however, it has the expertise and capabilities to refine and improve applications in this field, says Greyling.
“There are several research groups at local universities that focus on this technology space, specifically to investigate higher communications rates, laser beam manipulation and optimisation, as well as secure communication.”
Manufacturing represents the second-largest demand for laser-based technologies.
Laser-based selective hardening of components, laser-welding applications for heat-sensitive components and laser weld overlay, or laser cladding, for the repair and/or refurbishment of high-value components, are applications that are increasingly being used by the South African manufacturing industry, explains Greyling.
“In the past ten years, there has been dramatic growth and adoption of three-dimensional (3D) printing technologies in mainstream manufacturing, with polymer-based 3D printing playing an important role in prototyping applications and industrial parts.”
The CSIR manages and coordinates the Collaborative Program in Additive Manufacturing, a national network of research institutions that advance 3D-printing technologies.
The network is funded by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) and works with the South African 3D printing industry association, known as the Rapid Product Development Association of South Africa.
Research and Development
The NLC, which falls under the CSIR’s Future Production: Manufacturing cluster, is focused on a range of photonics-based applications.
“The centre’s research and development (R&D) portfolio is to develop innovative solutions, specifically to support and transfer new technologies to industry, while lowering the entry barrier for the adoption of new technologies,” explains Greyling.
Laser technology and using lasers in industrial applications are still relatively novel.
In manufacturing, specifically, laser technology will not necessarily replace existing manufacturing technologies, but rather offer new opportunities that make previously impossible applications feasible. The case is similar for applications in the health sector, says Greyling.
“As lasers are an expensive solution in many instances, they are used only in applications where they can unlock significant value or bring about a specific competitive advantage for the end-user.”
Rental Pool Programme
The Rental Pool Programme at the CSIR NLC will fund 30 research projects at various local universities this year.
“The programme, funded by the DSI, is very competitive and fully subscribed, and we encourage research groups to collaborate,” says Greyling.
This year’s projects cover topics from quantum cryptography, the shaping of light for various applications, and the study the effect of light and laser radiation in the treatment of illnesses, such as cancer, to the synthesizing of new materials for light generation.
The present focus of the programme is to improve the commercialisation of research done by research groups.
“The potential for the commercialisation of the research outputs was incorporated in the program’s evaluation framework, and researchers supported are encouraged to also work with their university technology transfer offices to ensure that new intellectual property that is developed from projects supported is formally protected through patent applications,” states Greyling.
African Laser Centre
The African Laser Centre (ALC) is also funded by the DSI and supports up to 20 research collaboration projects every year in photonics among researchers from South Africa and the rest of Africa.
It also supports up to 18 postgraduate scholarships, enabling non-South African students to study at South African universities at a Master’s or PhD level, as well as between six and eight winter or summer school training events every year.
Eighteen projects were funded, 63 journals papers were published and 54 conference papers were presented on research outputs in 2019. Of the 100 students participating in these projects, 84 were studying for their Master’s or PhDs.
“These outputs are typically generated each year by the ALC programme,” notes Greyling.
The projects supported in 2020 include the study of the anti-cancer, -inflammatory and -diabetic properties of African plants, where photonics-based principles are applied to evaluate the efficacy of these plant extracts. This year’s projects also cover the study of point-of-care biosensors for HIV detection and the evaluation of photovoltaic solar cells performance, as well as the synthesis and development of phosphors for use in solar cell applications.
These projects are under way at local universities and the CSIR, in collaboration with research partners in Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan and Botswana.
“The objective is to support research projects that have socioeconomic relevance and that can be converted into innovative products and processes. In the shorter term, these projects support the training of students, specifically to produce the next generation of scientists and engineers in Africa,” states Greyling.