It’s all about precision in Germany’s optical valley

Jena – High-precision laser light technology for industrial mass production and manufacturing is just one of the technologies that is coming out of Jena, the optical valley in east German state of Thuringia.

Located in the deep valley of the Saale River, Jena is the cradle of innovative, light-based technologies that began more than 150 years ago. It is also a European center for research in the field of optics and photonics, where ultrashort pulse laser for a more precise, subsurface cutting is being produced around the clock, thus earning its other nickname, “city of light”.

“The precise cutting allows smartphones and tablets to have more scratch resistance and robust display and camera. The laser pulses are also used for precise cutting of holes, such as for speakers, on hardened glass of smartphones and tablet displays,” said Stefan Nolte, a professor at the Institute of Applied Physics, Abbe Center of Photonics, Friedrich Schiller University Jena, told a group of international journalists earlier this year.

“Drilling of fuel injection nozzles also uses ultrashort pulse laser as it allows adapted holes for an optimized gas distribution, which leads to lower emissions and reduces consumption by up to 20 percent,” Nolte added.

Dr. Christian Helgert, chief executive officer of the Abbe Center of Photonics and Abbe School of Photonics said photonic technology is ubiquitous in everyday life, encompassing communication, health, environment, mobility, data management and security with a major impact on the world economy, creating 300 billion euro in the global market.

“Growth in the photonics industry is more than doubled of the worldwide GDP between 2005 and 2011,” Helgert said.

Thanks to its three most famous residents Otto Schott, Ernst Karl Abbe and Carl Zeiss, Jena developed into an industrial city producing binocular, glasses and microscope during the second half of the 19th century. Zeiss set up an optics workshop in 1846 and centuries later it has become a household name for manufacturing optical systems, industrial measurements and medical devices, which added weight to Jena’s reputation as a research, scientific and economic hub in east German that the trio established.

Out of Zeiss’ approximately 25,000 employees worldwide, 10 percent of them are in research and technology, said Ulrich Simon, senior vice president of corporate research and technology of Zeiss.

“Our DNA is innovation. 80 percent of smartphones would not exist today if Zeiss didn’t exist,” he added.

Jena’s optical and optoelectronic industry has 175 enterprises with a turnover of 2.85 billion euro and 10 percent rate of research and development. The industry employs 15,200 people, including 4,500 scientists in 1,300 research institutes.

“The universities and research institutes provide the optical environment and big level of competency in terms of optical technology and development,” Simon said.

As Germany is bracing for a demographic change when the country will have less young people and more of those over 60, research institutes have also been focusing their works on technology that would suit the needs of an aging society.

The ultrashort laser for subsurface cutting, for example, would be useful for a more precise eye surgery while at Zeiss, one of the examples of medical technology used in its vision care is adaptive introduction lens to regain full vision after cataract surgery.

Hans-Joachim Hennings, the director general of research and innovation at the Saxony-Anhalt state ministry for science and economy, said the state is channeling 20 million euro from 2016 to 2020 to fund research on aging society topics.

“It will be used among other for research on early diagnosis of neurodegenerative diseases and development of phytopharmaceutical products and other effective substances against dementia,” Hennings said.

A research campus in Magdeburg, the capital city of Saxony-Anhalt also places quality of life for an aging society as the highest relevance on its biomedical engineering project.

The campus, which is established on a public-private partnership between the Otto-von-Guericke-University Magdeburg, Siemens Healthcare GmbH and the Stimulate Association, aims to develop new imaging devices, intraoperative imaging methods, navigation devices, treatment planning and procedures for minimally invasive, image-guided interventions to treat cancer, cardiovascular and neurological diseases.

urte
Urte Kägebein, a doctoral student at the Stimulate research campus showed how a magnetic resonance imaging machine has a very high magnetic field. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

Urte Kägebein, an electrical engineering doctoral student and researcher for interventional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) at the Stimulate research campus is working on a research to improve the current available MRI system to treat cancer.

She said that her research project aims to track the precise location of a tumor. If the tumor is located, the treatment would be minimally invasive and patients would not need to go through chemotherapy since the treatment would only need to puncture a needle to reach the tumor and heat the needle with 90 degrees heat to destroy the tumor.

“It would be a through-and-through puncture. The needle is inserted where the skin is marked and it cuts through the fat tissue to reach the target,” she said.

“We could only do this if we know exactly where the tumor is and if the tumor is on a precise location,” Kägebein added.

Precise visualization of tumors is also a focal point in research at Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR), a research centre in Dresden and a member of one of Germany’s top four research organisations, Helmholtz Association, which focus its research on six fields including matter and health.

HZDR emphasises its health research on cancer and the center’s interdisciplinary environment allows matter and health scientists to collaborate, such as on laser acceleration of ion beams for research in a therapy known as radiation oncology or the therapeutic use of ionising radiation to treat cancer.

Professor Thomas Cowan, the director of HZDR’s Institute of Radiation Physics said the research is a reflection of a major question that drives HZDR’s work on health research; “how can malignant tumors be more precisely visualised, characterised and more effectively treated?”

 

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