In the last decades photonics-based solutions revolutionized countless fields, including communications, medicine, data storage and many more. Industrial material processing is no exception as it is currently completely reliant on lasers and other specialized light-based solutions on all levels of the process. This prompted creation of huge array of specialized laser sources, most of them operating with pulse durations of nanoseconds and more. While this is completely acceptable in macro-manufacturing, like car industry, the excessive heat accumulation during process reduces applicability of such light sources for true micro- and nano processing – the one that naked human eye cannot see. To solve this problem, 9 international partners (companies and research institutes) gathered for a big project called FemtoSurf to create a technology for metal surface texturing towards hydrophobicity, antibacterial properties and other.
Why is it not the life-changer for industry yet?
Nevertheless, despite high potential of femtosecond (fs) laser surface patterning, at the moment it is limited to academic research. One of the main problems preventing this technology from becoming a wide-spread solution is insufficient fs laser power preventing scaling of processing. Currently, the pulse energies needed to achieve required result can reach up to mJ, which results in average fs laser power in the range of W or event tens of W, pushing standard amplified fs lasers to their limit. Application of fs laser of kW-level average power would allow to use multiple laser spots for parallel processing, dramatically increasing the throughput of the process pushing it from lab to fab. However, currently high average power fs lasers are scarce. Also, new beam control and shaping techniques have to be developed in order to control and use such a powerful laser beam in the most efficient and applicable manner. Finally, advanced quality control methods and digital automatization have to be factored in, as these are inseparable parts of any industrial grade material processing setup.
This is where the FemtoSurf project stands up
To solve all the mentioned problems, the different institutions from Europe gathered together and formed the FemtoSurf consortium, funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme (Grant Agreement No. 825512). This project is funded by one of the calls under the Photonics Public Private Partnership (PPP) (www.photonics21.org). This project united the professionals from academia and industry, the laser researchers, material scientists, robotic systems designers, dental, ships and aircrafts manufacturers. The main objective of FemtoSurf project is to develop, test and demonstrate industrial-grade solid-state 2-3 kW-level fs laser with parameters suitable for metal surface patterning applicable in industrial settings. FemtoSurf industrial-grade 2-3kW-level fs laser will be integrated in propose built optical chain enabling multi-beam processing, integrated into a fully automated processing setup for efficient patterning arbitrary shaped metal components with sizes exceeding several meters while retaining micrometer level precision and on-the-fly quality assessment (zero faulty parts delivered).
The project value for aerospace industry
Wear and contamination of aviation components that are under constant stress is a major issue, as it requires constant cleaning/restoration operations that are complex and costly. The surface treatment developed in FemtoSurf will allow the covering airplane or spacecraft components in surface patterns enhancing their self-cleaning properties and reducing the overall friction between components under heavy load.
One of the project partners and end-users is Aerea S.p.A. (Italy) that designs, develops, produces and supports the aerospace store carriage system and structures. Head of Aerea‘s research and technology department Luca Pernechele explained the main challenges their industry faces: „We have to guarantee the highest performance with an excellent reliability since our equipment are integrated on the most advanced aircraft or on space platforms where a failure is not a sustainable option. We also face against a low rate production and therefore we need flexible solutions able to be easily customized based on customer requirements (i.e. design to spec)“. However, using FemtoSurf surface texturing technology a number of problems could be solved: reduce components wear out, reduce friction resistance inside mechanism thus increasing the mechanical efficiency, improving surface corrosion resistance of metallic parts due to surface hydrophobicity property, improving paint and resin adhesion with metallic substrate with hybrid composite material.
Luca Pernechele forecasts how company performance can be improved with FemtoSurf technology: „An increase efficiency of the bonding process due to a better paint adhesion may reduce the bonding area minimum surface, simplifying the geometry and reducing the component weight, a friction reduction may determine a component longer life with a reduced scheduled maintenance, an increase corrosion protection may save the component avoiding its substitution“. It may be concluded that FemtoSurf solution will dramatically enhance the lifetime and, in turn, profitability in aerospace sector.
FemtoSurf surface treatment for medical devices
The surface properties of any medical device play very important role in medicine, at it determines biocompatibility, reaction to drugs and, most importantly for implants, repulsion or adhesion to living tissue. Indeed, currently used titanium implants play a major role in orthopedics, as it allows to replace sick or damaged bones. FemtoSurf solution would allow to directly tune the properties of titanium implants, including targeted induction of repulsion or adhering in designated areas of the implant.
Another end-user Sintea Factory is an Italy-based medical device manufacturer that design, produce and market orthopedic prostheses and spine implants worldwide. This company aims at developing surfaces with physiochemical properties that enhance the biological response, and here the FemtoSurf technology could increase osteointegration and reduce friction, giving an important contribution to the development of new and more biocompatible prostheses. In the future orthopedic companies will focus more on advanced coatings that mimic the properties of biological environments with an obvious positive impact on the biocompatibility of the medical device. Therefore, FemtoSurf solution will lead to giant leap forward in the functionality and longevity of orthopedic implants.
Anti-fouling properties for ship building industry
Fouling is a massive issue in all sea fairing vessels, resulting in increased drag and fuel consumption, raising both operational costs and carbon footprint of ships. Rolla SP Propellers SA (Switzerland) delivers high quality and high-performance marine propulsion system. Paolo Vagni, Technical director of this company states that it requires to guarantee high performances and low fuel consumption in the marine transportation sector. When asked about the input of Femtosurf technology in shipping industry, Paolo Vagni claims that surface structuring will help to keep the original performance for longer products life-time avoiding fouling without the need of maintenance: „The fact that performances of propulsion system can be kept as original will have great impact on the operative fuel consumption of the vessel up to 8-10%, short scheduled maintenance could be avoided resulting in an extra reduction of cost for ship owner“. The anti-fouling surface structures on ship propellers implemented in FemtoSurf will lead to massive decrease in fuel consumption and maintenance of ships, directly impacting maritime industry and indirectly worldwide shipping industry, as decrease in fouling should result in operational costs decrease as much as 161 thousand euros for single 42 meters long crew vessel.
Advantages for several areas: from ecology to better life quality for elders
Despite the mentioned advantages for end-user companies, Femtosurf project creates great benefits for more stakeholders. Technology coordinator of the project Gedvinas Nemickas from Femtika (Lithuania), working in the area of femtosecond laser material processing, reveals that Femtosurf technology will lead to patentable discoveries in laser surface nanotexturing area for industry applications and possibilities for further researches, as well as new opportunities for the whole science community with the created kW-level femtosecond laser robotic system.
Vidmantas Sakalys, the CEO of the project coordinator Femtika, lists some more advantages. First, the FemtoSurf activities may result in creation of new businesses, factories and suppliers resulting in new job opportunities in the advanced materials, manufacturing and engineering sectors. Additional to this, „FemtoSurf technology will improve implants, so the fast aging society will use better quality implants, so there will be reduced the number of visits to the doctor, the prostheses will serve longer. What is more, FemtoSurf will provide ecological CO2 reducing technology in transportation – less chemicals will be used in different industries. It is possible that companies will incur lower costs, so the travelling (FemtoSurf technology used for airbuses, ships surface improvement) will be cheaper and bigger number of citizens will have a possibility to meet other cultures and to expand their view, resulting in higher index of happiness“ – notes Vidmantas Sakalys.
More information about the project can be found: www.femtosurf.eu.