With the next generation of microchips boosting the performance of everyday items from mobile phones to food processors, companies are clearly not running out of new applications for miniature components. But making components ever smaller depends on highly precise lasers to do the cutting - and this is where EUROLASER EXCIMER has given European industry a lead.
Over nine years, the EUROLASER project has brought together 41 industrial and academic partners in order to share research and expertise and master the technology of excimer lasers. Excimer lasers draw their power - and name - from the decay of "excited" pairs of gas molecules known as "dimers" that emit a pulse of laser light that can be used to cut with great precision. They have become one of the key underpinning technologies in industries as diverse as semiconductors, telecommunications, microelectronics, automobiles and biotechnology.
"EUREKA helped us create a strong European co-operation network, which helped develop innovative ideas and realize new industrial applications of excimer lasers"
Fraunhofer Institute of Applied Optics and Precision Engineering
Norbert Kaiser of the Fraunhofer Institute of Applied Optics and Precision Engineering explains how excimer lasers have become a high-tech workhorse. "Excimer lasers are the most powerful and versatile laser sources in the UV spectrum. Their main advantages are short wavelengths and short pulse duration. This enables material processing to the highest precision in material and surface structuring," he says.
EUROLASER was all about taming this power. Excimer lasers can differ in the shape of the beam, the energy of their pulse and the rate at which the pulse is repeated. Parameters such as these have to be adjusted to different applications. For instance, an excimer tuned to drill micro-nozzles for ink jet printers may not suit an optician using photo-refractive surgery for vision correction.
Collaborations to last
By sharing research outputs, the EUROLASER EXCIMER partners took great collective strides over the project's nine-year lifespan. "Innovative ideas were shared and discussed, and new processes were achieved by having the critical mass of research and development - including the input of final product users - behind us," says Kaiser.
Although EUROLASER officially ended in 1996, it seeded a network of contacts that is still active today. For example, industry partner Lambda Physik continues to co-operate with the Institut fur Strahlwerkzeuge and the Max-Born Institute.
Marc Stehle President of French partner Sopra described the progress of the project as "over-exceeding expectations". Following the project, Sopra funded further developments including lasers for the Flat Panel display industry and has since led Sopra to become "the only commercial supplier in the world able to design and manufacture high energy excimer laser systems".
To prevent any duplication of results, the EUROLASER partners drew up a catalogue of results from the different partners. That good work has been continued by German project partner Lambda Physik which released the latest excimer technology handbook in 2001.