What can a small post-soviet state whose population totals a little over 3 million surprise the world by? By achievements in scientific research, say Lithuanian creators of laser technologies. Laser technologies is one of the spheres of high technologies in which Lithuania has the lead.
The laser cluster oriented mainly to manufacture of scientific research equipment and facilities outstrips other traditional spheres of manufacture. No other branch of industry in Lithuania dominates the world markets, whereas picosecond lasers created by the Lithuanians constitute half the market, femtosecond parametric light amplifies account for as much as 80 per cent of the world market. Lithuanian lasers are ever more widely used not only in scientific research but they are also being introduced in industry, medicine.
Scientific research that has been carried out at Vilnius University and the Institute of Physics since the seventh decade of the 20th century encouraged the birth of laser technology companies in Lithuania. The majority of companies currently operating in the coun-try in this sphere were established between 1985 and 1995 and was a natural continuation of those scientific investigations. Founders of these companies were scientists and engineers who had left scientific research institutions.
At the present time there are over 15 companies creating and implementing laser technologies in Lithuania. A large part thereof has been established at scientific research institutions so that science and business could co-operate directly.
The objective is more efficient production
What is this union of science and business needed for, and why is manufacture of lasers a priority sphere worth investing into?
Lasers have become especially marketable in seeking to increase efficiency and speed of production processes. Fierce competition and laws of globalization make giants of world industry make processes of their activity more efficient. For example, this tendency is especially obvious in Japan, where it is sought to over-come consequences of the economic crisis in this way. Therefore Lithuanian creators of laser technologies have what to offer their partners in foreign countries.
Facts show that Lithuania’s laser cluster is becoming more and more established in the world market. The annual sale of its production has come close to EUR 29 million. The annual average growth of the sector accounts for about 20 per cent, and during the past five years sales have increased by as much as 2.4 times.
Lithuania’s laser industry exports more than 86 per cent of its production. The largest part of production created and manufactured in Lithuania is sold in Europe and North America. Three fourths of total production is sold to these continents. Meantime, with economy of Asia growing rapidly, ever more lasers are sold in the countries of Asia. At the present time Asia and Oceania accounts for 20 per cent of total export.
Though the Lithuanians sell the largest part of laser equipment and lasers in the developed countries, during the recent years export to the rapidly developing countries such as China, has increased considerably. Tendencies show that the implementation of laser tech-nologies is a significant condition in fighting for the market.
Greatest attention is paid to scientific research
What products of laser technologies created by the Lithuanians can surprise the world? Practice shows that technologies and products intended for materials processing and used in communication and optical memory equipment constitute the largest part of laser sales in the world. Therefore the laser sector of Lithuania is also aimed at this largest, especially rapidly growing sector of laser systems intended for processing materials. According to statistics, this market is ten times larger than the sector of scientific research systems. Such technologies as laser cutting, engraving, welding and drilling have become established for a long time and new technologies open up new development possibilities – light-pipe lasers and especially short-pulse lasers.
Thus far, however, laser industry companies in Lithuania have earned the largest part of their income by creating lasers for the scientific research market: production of Lithuanian companies accounts for 10 per cent of the world market of this sector. According to statistics, the world market of lasers intended for scientific research has increased by as much as 33 per cent since 2003, and in 2008 totalled USD 181 million.
Lithuanian scientists also think of the future. In the world, laser micro-processing has been ever wider applied in producing solar elements. With petroleum becoming more expensive, its resources decreasing, the demand for alternative energetics increases considerably. According to experts, manufacture of solar elements will increase by as much as 25-35 per cent in the immediate decade. No crisis has any effect on the market of lasers intended for manufacturing solar elements. Some years ago Lithuania’s manufacturers and creators of lasers became interested in micro-processing technologies intended for manufacturing solar elements and started to develop them successfully.
Industry is unique
Lithuania’s laser industry is unique because all companies emerged as private initiatives, without receiving any foreign investments or direct subsidies from the state. Thus, all companies are Lithuanian capital companies and function without any subsidies from the state.
Do you know what equipment scientists working in Lithuanian laser laboratories jokingly call cepelinai – the name of a national Lithuanian dish? They are parametric light generators and amplifies manufactured by the Companies Šviesos konversija and Ekspla, which account for about 80 per cent of the world market of these products. At some largest world research centres parametric light generators are used to study ultra-fast processes taking place in substances. The laser technology company Ekspla in Lithuania, which has inde-pendently created and manufactured laser systems and related equipment for 18 years already, occupies more than half the world market of scientific picoecond lasers and is the only one in the world to manufacture SFG (sensitive to submonolayer of molecules) spectrometers intended for studying surfaces of materials. The Company exports more than 90 per cent of its production to 40 count-ries. Well-known names of its customers Hitachi and Mitsubishi research centres, IBM, NASA, the USA navy and military air force centres show that the largest Lithuanian laser technology companies have been recognized among its customers. Last year the Company established its representation in China.
Ekspla is one of the companies of Eksma group. The latter group has worked in the sphere of high technologies for a quarter of a century already – the above-mentioned company Ekspla of that group manufactures lasers, and another company Optolita creates, manu-factures and with the Eksma Optics trade mark sells optic components to scientific research institutions and enterprises manufacturing lasers or optic equipment. Lithuanian products with the Eksma Optics mark are exported to 46 countries of the world.
Chief of Ekspla Shanghai repre-sentative office Raimondas Kondrotas points out: “China seeks to expand its industry into a sector with high value-added by rapidly increasing import of modern technologies and developing these technologies within the country. Therefore lasers manufactured by Ekspla for industrial microprocessing of materials find an ever wider range of customers in modern Chinese industry of microelectronics, solar cells. Having local representation also helps us to closer cooperate with manufacturers of laser components who supply products of attractive quality and at a reasonable price that are used in lasers manufactured in Lithuania”.
Another Lithuanian company that takes the lead in foreign markets is Light Conversion, which is the initiator and the world leader in manufacturing of multi-colour femtosecond lasers. The company exports 95 per cent of production being manufactured to 35 countries of the world. The company Šviesos konversija, which has been recognised the innovative company of the year, together with the company Ekspla, has acquired the USA company Altos Photonics, which distributes laser systems in North America. Altechna, which exports 80 per cent of its production, creates systems of processing solar elements by lasers. Recently the company has created and put on the world market a new micro-laser and a diode monitor of large capacity for lasers.
One more company Optida specialises in the sphere of optic technologies, and manufactures optic elements for lasers. Geola Digital creates pulse lasers for holography and scientific research. The company Standa that was established in a simple garage 20 years ago, today has become one of the most famous companies in Europe designing and manufacturing exact mechanics in the sphere of photonics.
Lithuanians have been recognised in the world
Lithuanian scientists do not only work in the laboratories of their native country. They are also known abroad and are often invited to famous world universities or other scientific research centres. For example, Prof. Almantas Galvanauskas, who worked at the Institute of Semiconductor Physics in the Soviet times, today is a distinguished scientist of Michigan (USA) University.
In 1990, he went to work at the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm where he was awarded a Doctorate degree.
The sphere of his scientific research is light-pipe laser technologies and their practical application. This has been his main theme for the past 18 years.
According to Professor Almantas Galvanauskas, though Lithuania is a small country, it is unique in that different laser companies operate there. “University groups and individual scientists from Lithuania work abroad, and they are noticed and well known. One can even state that scientists of this field are known in the world as are Lithuanian basketball players”, compared Almantas Galvanauskas.
When asked to mention the best-known scientists the Professor from the USA mentioned the name of Algirdas Piskarskas. His name is well known and respected and the best known Lithuanian companies are Ekspla, Eksma and Šviesos konversija.
According to Almantas Galvanauskas, the latter is famous for its new solid-state ultra-short pulse lasers, which far surpass equipment of a similar type, which are sold by the world leaders in laser industry.
Other scientists who work productively abroad also make the name of Lithuania famous. In 1999 the graduate of Vilnius University Andrius Baltuška, together with his colleagues from the University of Groningen (Holland), created the laser generating the shortest light impulse in the world (4,7×10-15 s). This achievement has been entered in the Guiness Book of Records. In the same year the Lithuanian scientist Remigijus Gaška established the Company Sensor Electronic Technology in the USA, which soon became one of the most famous manufacturers of ultraviolet sources of semiconductor light in the world. The Company has been recognised the Success Story of high technologies in the USA.
Application of lasers
The greatest part of lasers intended for industry in Lithuania, as in the whole of the world, is used for cutting metal sheets. These are powerful systems capable of cutting 20-30 meter thick steel sheets. At the present time about 30 laser systems intended for cutting metal sheets operate in Lithuania. The number of laser systems has increased considerably after metal processing industry started receiving orders from Western companies for manufacturing parts.
Point welding by means of pulse solid-state lasers is also widely used in Lithuania. Dental technicians and jewellers use this equipment.
Laser marking and engraving technologies whose advantages are flexibility in manufacturing and small investments, are quickly developing in Lithuania. For example, to protect documents against falsification, personal information is entered in passports, driving licenses and other identification or discount cards by means of laser equipment. Laser graving is also used to make seals. Laser level rulers for wood industry were implemented in sawmills more than a decade ago. Recently some new companies specialising in non-traditional illumination of entertainment events, advertising have been established in Lithuania. The companies manufacture and create laser projects, other laser light sources.
About 80 laser systems are used in medical institutions in Lithuania. The main users are clinics, medical centres; lasers are used in surgery, to carry out plastic operations, when treating cancer, in diagnosing cancer, etc.
Future is solar energy
In what way is Lithuania’s economy going to develop in the future? Scientists working in the sphere of lasers openly confess that recently a great number of tasks have been set to this branch of science, which will not be so easy to cope with.
Having won especially strong positions in the world market of scientific lasers, this sector initiates ambitious plans of how to enter the new markets. To achieve this objective it is necessary to set up new scientific centres uniting scientific and industrial efforts. The European Union structural support will be used successfully for this purpose. The Joint Centre for Laser Materials Processing Technologies currently being created in Saulėtekis Valley will become a significant step towards penetrating into the industrial market.
Much attention is intended to be devoted to one of the most promising spheres – that of solar energy. Lasers manufactured in Lithuania can be applied to produce solar elements, and some companies have received EU structural support to create new vital technologies. In January, a factory of solar cells was opened in Lithuania and more factories are planned to be opened in the future.
Furthermore, in the immediate future the Lithuanian laser sector will offer laser equipment to the medical research market.