Advancements in technology are constantly revolutionising scientific industries. One of the most recent is Laser drilling. Laser drilling is a cutting process, in which a high power laser is utilised in place of a conventional mechanical drill.
Laser drilling operates through a version of ablation, which is defined as the removal of material from the surface of an object by vaporisation, chipping or erosion. A focused laser beam is projected into an object and the drilling is actualised through melting and vaporisation. The depth of which the laser energy is absorbed by a material, and thus the material removed by said laser, is obviously dependant upon the chemical and physical attributes of the material, but also the wave length and pulse length of the laser, which can be precisely controlled and monitored.
Due to it’s versatility, laser ablation has been used successfully across a multitude of applications: laser machining, laser drilling, and intriguingly, biologically. Laser ablation has been used in the accelerated and targeted destruction of biological cells and even in human dentistry.
Laser drilling has been adopted by manufacturers on a small scale for increased productivity and accuracy levels in boring small cylindrical holes into various types of metal and mechanical components. Their flexibility in comparison to conventional drills has had positive ramifications in terms of improved fuel efficiency, reduced noise and lower CO2 emissions across several mechanical endeavours.
Research is ongoing into the development and advancement of the success of laser drilling technology onto larger scale operations and objectives, one such example is geothermal energy sourcing. Previous attempts to drill deep down into the Earth’s mantle have been futile and conventional drilling has yet to provide a feasible means of realising the difficult goal of penetrating the Earth’s crust. Infamously the 2010 announcement by Dr. Damon Teagle of the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton and Dr. Benoit Ildefonso of Montpellier University in France that they intended to bore deep into the Earth’s mantle in Nature was applauded by the science community, until the pair speculated the technologies for their operation might not be available until 2018.
However, laser drilling has the potential to progress and overcome the limitations of conventional drilling. A small American company, with funding from one of the US Department of Energy‘s subsidiaries claim to have developed a prototype laser system that can easily and inexpensively “rip” through hard rock. The results of this prototype are yet to be seen, but with government funding and some of the best scientific minds behind the project, it can only be a matter of time before large-scale laser technology becomes a tangible reality.