Laser cutting is a technology that uses a laser to vaporise materials, resulting in a cut edge. The advantages of laser cutting over mechanical cutting include easier work holding and reduced contamination of the workpiece. Precision laser cutting is generally considered superior. This is because the laser beam does not wear out during the cutting process and there is a reduced chance of warping the material being cut.
In 2019 a team of European scientists, aiming to improve car manufacturing speed and efficiency while reducing potential production costs and environmental impact, began development on a new precision pulse laser to cut and shape ultra-high-strength industrial materials while producing significantly less waste, similar to a pulse laser developed by Gerard Mourou, the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics winner.
Going by the acronym PULSE, the consortium behind the precision pulse laser draws on expertise from 11 research institutions and industry partners from six European countries and is coordinated by Tampere University in Finland.
The project has received around a €5 million development grant from the European Commission. A prototype is envisioned to be available this year with an end date on the project currently set for December 2022.
Cutting Boron Steel
Boron steel is used in car bodies because of its superior strength and durability. The traditional process of cutting steel using an arc torch to ensure durability tends to remove many of the steel's fundamental properties, such as its workability.
While ultrashort-pulse laser technology has been around for decades and is increasingly being deployed in industrial production, the newly innovated laser operates at 1.5km/s and is specified to be powerful enough to cut the hardest boron steel at one cubic centimetre per minute which is more than a thousand times faster than any existing technology. The pulses in the new laser are so fast that their duration is measured in femtoseconds which compared to a second, is in the same ratio as one second to 32 million years.
Exerting an average power of 2.5kW, or 100kW in a single pulse, with repetition rates up to 1 GHz, the precision pulse laser will have the control and capability to etch moulds for vehicle parts at micron-scale accuracy. The laser will also be able to micro-weld dissimilar metals for solar thermal absorbers.
All going as planned; the new system is set to have a positive environmental impact in the way in which its efficiency should be able to reduce waste products by up to 10%. The laser system is also expected to improve digital design to lower vehicle chassis weights which positively impacts fuel economy and also has benefits for electric vehicle manufacturing.
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