Lasers are a pretty simple piece of technology — all they do is emit a concentrated beam of visible light. The unique characteristics of light, however, plus the power it can pack, make lasers highly flexible tools. As a result, industries commonly use laser technology for a massive range of purposes — everything from cutting, to welding, to chemical analysis, to sending data.
Here are six industries where laser technology plays a vital role — as well as a few fields where new applications of laser tech may soon become commonplace.
The high precision that laser cutters, welders and measure tools offer makes them a powerful tool for manufacturers who need to make precise cuts or welds or want high accuracy in measurements.
For example, the automotive industry has used lasers since the 1980s. Today, a laser touches almost every modern car at least once during the manufacturing process, whether that’s in cutting the door lining, marking tires with manufacturing information or manufacturing the car keys.
These laser cutters are also useful in manufacturing goods with exact detail at minuscule scales — like semiconductors.
Lasers can also tag manufactured goods with special marks and IDs that make it easy to tell the location and date of manufacture. Some laser marking systems are capable of creating machine-readable ID marks at a speed of greater than 1,000 characters per second — making them highly effective at improving the traceability of goods manufactured on high-speed production lines.
Construction companies and contractors often use laser-based tools to provide more stable or accurate measurements. For example, they often use laser levels in place of traditional, analog ones because of the highly precise level lines they can generate. These tools can also create 360-degree lines, allowing for uninterrupted and level lines around an entire room.
Other common construction laser tools include laser tape measures, which can provide much more accurate results than analog tape measures — helping construction crews ensure their site planning and construction is as accurate as possible.
Doctors sometimes use weak or low-level lasers to treat patients and promote healing — like, for example, in low-level laser therapy, which uses light applied directly to the body to promote the regeneration of damaged cells.
Stronger lasers sometimes also play a role in microsurgery, a form of minimally invasive surgery commonly used to remove tumors from sensitive areas — like around the voice box — to minimize the risk of damage and scarring.
4. Retail, Logistics, Warehousing
In retail, logistics and most steps in the supply chain, lasers are essential in product traceability. If you’ve ever scanned a barcode, the reader you used was probably a laser scanner. These scanners cast lasers over the surface of a barcode to convert it into machine-readable information — like a product ID.
In warehouses, lasers communicate information to computers, but not quite in the same way. Instead, workers use lasers to guide automatic guided vehicles — like driverless forklifts — around the warehouse, helping them to avoid obstacles and warehouse staff.
Fiber-optic cables — strands of optically pure glass that carry information over long distances in the form of light — are commonly used in telecommunications and computer networking because of the cables’ light weight and flexibility.
These cables transfer information in the form of laser light. A machine on one end of the cable converts data into pulses of light. This light then travels down the cable, bouncing off the interior walls. On the other end, another device receives the data, reading it in the pulses of laser light.
Fiber-optic cables can send massive amounts of data every second, with some experimental fiber optics managing speeds as high as 111 gigabits per second — more than 1,000 times faster than the average American internet connection.
6. Scientific Research
Researchers often use lasers for applications commonly seen in other fields — like information transfer, measurement and material transformation via cutting, welding and mark-making. The properties of light also make them excellent for applications that are more unique to scientific research, like laser-based chemical analysis.
Laser-based chemical analysis, called laser-based spectroscopy, allows for the quick, remote chemical analysis of a given substance.
With laser spectroscopy, a laser beam fires a pulse of light, which gets reflected by a substance that scientists want to analyze. The light excites the atoms in the substance, causing movement of the atom’s electrons for a brief moment. As the electrons begin to slow down, they fluoresce, emitting lights in a pattern unique to each atom. A device called a spectrometer then analyzes the wavelengths of the reflected light and breaks down the chemical composition of the substance the laser was fired at.
This method of analysis is valuable in situations where scientists need quick results, or where traditional chemical analysis isn’t practical — like, for example, when you’re piloting a rover on Mars, and want to analyze a soil sample remotely.
Potential Future Applications of Laser Technology
As with any other transformative technology that has major impacts on our lives, researchers are also looking for new ways to apply lasers to other fields — like, for example, the energy industry.
Drilling is an essential step in most energy applications, including in geothermal energy, which draws on the power of heat stored in subterranean thermal vents. However, using this heat requires reaching and exposing the vent. Doing so requires drilling through deep, tough rocks under high temperatures and pressures — conditions that massively slow the drilling process and wear out drill bits quickly.
Experimental applications of drilling lasers used in the past few years have made deep rock drilling more practical and efficient. In these applications, drilling lasers, guided by a jet of water, weaken a targeted section of rock before drilling begins. The heat from the laser makes the rock easier for the drill to penetrate, improving the drill bit’s lifespan and speeding up the drilling process.
Lasers may also soon have a significant impact on agriculture. Farmers are exploring precision farming technology, which uses lasers to help automated systems manage crops and soil conditions, to help automate some of the most tedious aspects of farming and plant care and cut back on the labor needed for agriculture.
How Various Industries Use Lasers
Lasers, despite their simplicity, are highly effective tools with a range of uses. A variety of different industries rely on lasers to improve measurements, speed up manufacturing and provide valuable analysis.
Technologists are also developing new applications for lasers all the time. Soon, we may see lasers used to speed up drilling for geothermal vents, or simplify some of the labor behind growing crops.
Lexie is a digital nomad and graphic designer. If she’s not traveling to various parts of the country, you can find her at the local flea markets or hiking with her goldendoodle. Check out her design blog, Design Roast, and connect with her on Twitter @lexieludesigner.
Interesting related article: “Laser radio and ultra-fast Wi-Fi.”