From Star Wars blasters to orbital ray guns, powerful lasers are better known for blowing things apart than building them up. But scientists at GE Global Research beg to differ.
They are using lasers to “print” intricate titanium parts for jet engines, drill constellations of tiny cooling holes in turbine blades, and buff the blades’ sinuous curves for strength. (The beam’s intense energy alters the material structure right under the blade surface and makes it harder.)
“Manufacturing workers will soon be like Jedi Knights, wielding laser tools that cut, weld and scribe advanced metal and ceramic materials into complex parts,” says Hongqiang Chen, lead laser processing engineer at the GE lab. “Advanced manufacturing has arrived and we’re beginning to see laser technologies move from specialty applications to common tools used by workers on the plant floor.”
Chen says that beside blades, researchers on his team are also using lasers to weld X-ray tube filaments made from tungsten, laminate spacer components for power generators, and cut and “micro-join” parts to manufacture next-generation Durathon batteries.
Laser, an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission Radiation, is a powerful beam of electromagnetic radiation – not just visible light, but also infrared beams and X-rays. The technology is still quite young. Albert Einstein thought that the laser was possible in 1917, but it was not until 1960 when American physicist Theodore Maiman built one.
GE researchers helped the technology grow up. In 1962, GE scientist Robert Hall, working in the same lab as Chen now, invented the semiconductor laser. Hall’s laser is now everywhere. It reads digital bits from DVD discs inside your player, and powers TV remotes, laser printers, supermarket checkout counters and many other everyday devices. A year later, in 1963, Hall’s colleague Nick Holonyak turned the infrared laser into the world’s first LED light, glowing bright red in the dark of his lab. He called it “the magic one.”
“As far as I am concerned, the modern LED starts at General Electric,” Holonyak says. “We opened a door on the ultimate lamp.”
Chen says that using lasers to make things will lead to new, efficient designs hard to make by existing tools, and faster and more flexible manufacturing. “Global manufacturing is becoming more and more competitive,” he says. “Product cycles are getting shorter and labor costs are rising, even in developing world. The premium today is on technology and laser tools will help us stay on top.”