Powerful laser could boost car manufacturing

With the ability to cut and shape ultra-high-strength boron steel up to one thousand times faster than existing technology, a new precision pulse laser looks set to boost the car industry with a 10% reduction in waste products, a 5% reduction in chassis costs, and a two-third decrease in manufacturing time.

European scientists from the Photonics21 project are developing a ‘pulsed’ laser system, similar to the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics winner, to cut and shape ultra-high-strength industrial materials that are notoriously difficult to process at unimaginable speeds, while producing considerably less waste.

Operating at 1.5 kilometres per second, the new laser will be powerful enough to cut the hardest boron steel used in car construction at 1cm3 per minute – over a thousand times faster than existing technology that currently ablates steel at 1cm3 per minute.

Exerting an average power of 2.5kW, or 100kW in a single pulse, and with repetition rates up to 1GHz (a thousand times more than the current 1MHz upper limit), the laser will have the control and refinement to etch moulds for vehicle parts at micron-scale accuracy as well as micro-weld dissimilar metals for solar thermal absorbers.

Commonly used in laser eye surgery, pulsed lasers send out short blasts of energy, or ‘pulses’, in tiny fractions of a second. The pulses in this new laser are measured in femtoseconds.

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 €5million development grant from the European Commission.

Boron Steel Cutter

Boron steel, which is used in car bodies because of its high strength, is so durable that it is often difficult to cut or shape. The processes used to ensure its durability usually removes many of the steel's fundamental properties, such as workability.

Although boron steel can be cut with a plasma arc torch, this can instantly heat the metal to over 650°C and is not as precise or as quick as a pulse laser.

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

Project coordinator, Dr Regina Gumenyuk said: “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, M2<1.1, and pulse energies 2.5-250µJ.”

Positive Environmental Impact

The new system looks to have a positive environmental impact by being so efficient that waste products will be reduced.

“PULSE is committed to improving manufacturing, but also reducing the impact on the environment, therefore we can confirm that a 10% reduction in waste products is certainly achievable,” Dr Gumenyuk said.

The laser system is expected to improve digital design to lighten vehicle chassis weight with benefits to fuel economy and increase the range of electric vehicles.

The consortium expects a prototype to be ready by 2021.

Tom Austin-Morgan

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