Enabling inexpensive disposable LED lasers

11 June 2008 News News Opto-Electronics

Lasers are used in numerous applications, ranging from cutting sheet metal to detecting chemicals to facilitating ultra high-speed communication.

Though there are various types of lasers, each with specific power outputs and features, none are considered inexpensive.

In spite of their inherent benefits, lasers are still limited to those applications that can afford the technology which, depending on the requirements, could be quite expensive. Another hurdle facing laser adoption in the lower segments is the fact that most lasers require another laser to power them in order to reach their lasing potential.

Now, researchers from the University of St Andrews have successfully developed and demonstrated what could possibly be the most inexpensive laser technology. Their lasers have the ability to be powered by conventional light-emitting diodes (LEDs) as opposed to more expensive pumping lasers and this could open up new potential markets in cost sensitive applications. The LED driven laser would be ideally suited to portable medical treatment, light-emitting clothing and so on.

As their approach does away with the additional driving laser and replaces it with low-cost LEDs, the overall laser can be made quite compact and at a fraction of the original cost of existing technologies. This advancement was achieved through the joint efforts of Ifor Samuel and Graham Turnbull during their work on remarkable plastic-like semiconducting materials.

The flexible light-emitting materials possess the characteristics of semiconductors while requiring only a simple manufacturing process like that of plastics. They have thus far been successfully used to make light-emitting sticking plaster for the treatment of skin cancer. This and other applications of such lasers could revolutionise point of care diagnosis and treatment.

The elimination of the primary pumping laser and subsequent replacement with simple LEDs along with the plastic laser itself could lead to a new range of extremely low-cost lasers. The plastic laser efficiently converts visible light from off-the-shelf LEDs (such as those found in torches and traffic lights) into laser light.

As the LEDs can be battery powered, the hybrid LED-laser approach can make for very simple and portable low-cost compact emitters. Another feature of the technology is that it can produce a variety of colours, making these lasers a suitable choice for applications such as spectroscopy or chemical sensing. The LED-laser is capable of producing a laser beam of any colour thanks to the fact that LEDs can be designed for any colour output.

As the LED-lasers are inexpensive to develop, they can also be used for single-use medical diagnostic kits or in extreme environments such as sensing for explosives. According to Graham Turnbull, the LED-laser would cost less than $10, which is significantly less than most visible lasers, which can cost up to tens of thousands of dollars.

For more information contact Patrick Cairns, Frost & Sullivan, +27 (0)21 680 3274,

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