Laser leader Lithuania: how a small country achieved world-class excellence in laser technologies
Photo by G. Trečiokas / Ekspla
Lithuania’s global leadership in laser technologies might be surprising, given the modest size of the country. But with more than half a century of expertise behind it, the Lithuanian laser industry is a major league player in both scientific and industrial laser technologies. Providing solutions for the likes of NASA and IBM, Lithuania’s laser specialists continue to push the scientific frontier and generate the sector’s impressive growth year after year. What is the secret behind this success?
A tight academia-industry bond
Lithuania has jumped into the laser game early on, with the country’s first laser fired in 1966 – merely six years after the world’s first laser in the US. The first Lithuanian laser was used to research semiconductors, an area of expertise of Lithuanian physicists at the time. Soon, the first laser laboratories were established at the Institute of Physics and at Vilnius University, where budding scientists and experienced laser physics experts conducted scientific research in parallel to designing and manufacturing new laser devices.
But a timely start is only one of the reasons behind the ascent of Lithuanian lasers. Scientific expertise and research infrastructure in Lithuania’s academic institutions have long been complemented by a strong cooperative relationship between industry and academia.
“Lithuania’s laser sector has grown to a fully self-sustaining ecosystem that builds on tight connections between research institutions and businesses,” explains Dr. Gediminas Račiukaitis, President of the Lithuanian Laser Association. “As most – and at the beginning nearly all – employees of Lithuanian laser manufacturers had their start in laser physics in the country’s scientific institutions, the relationship between academia and industry in this sector has always been strong.”
This close relationship has produced laser solutions that are unique in the global market. An excellent example is Laser Nanofactory, a workstation for complex micro-device manufacturing equipped with a femtosecond laser. It was the first machine in the world to enable ultra-precise 3D production by combining additive and subtractive manufacturing technologies. This combination allows to process a wide range of materials – glass, ceramics, metals – at micro and nano scale, and build objects of various intricate microarchitectures that are impossible to create by other methods.
Laser Nanofactory was developed by Femtika, a company that is a spin-off of Laser Research Centre at Vilnius University (VU). During the project, VU scientists shared their knowledge with Femtika specialists at every stage of the product development process, from generating ideas to building the machine.
“The relationship between academia and industry is a key factor in Femtika’s success,” says Vidmantas Šakalys, CEO at Femtika. “The joint development of technologies and innovative products is what drives the commercialization of scientific research results forward.”
Producing the world’s most powerful laser systems
Lithuanian scientists have long been on the quest to develop ever more powerful and stable laser systems, and their research has resulted in an impressive number of breakthroughs, especially in amplifying the power of ultrashort lasers. One such technology is optical parametric chirped pulse amplification (OPCPA), developed by VU scientists, which can boost the power of femtosecond light pulses up to a petawatt level – trillions of times more powerful than an average light bulb.
“The OPCPA method is considered to be the most important Lithuanian contribution to global laser physics,” explains Prof. Aidas Matijošius, Director of Laser Research Center at Vilnius University. “With the help of this technology, Lithuanian laser companies are developing and installing some of the world’s most powerful laser systems in scientific research centres around the globe.”
The OPCPA method and Lithuanian laser manufacturers Light Conversion and Ekspla are behind the high-power laser systems of ELI (Extreme Light Infrastructure) centres in Europe. Dedicated to experimental physics research, these Lithuanian-made systems are used to investigate the smallest particles of matter, acting as a looking glass into a subatomic world inhabited by the fundamental building blocks of the universe.
But according to Prof. Matijošius, Lithuanian lasers also enable groundbreaking research in fields other than physics and material science.
“Experiments with the short-pulse lasers in ELI laboratories can lead to discoveries and innovations in multiple fields, from improving cancer treatment and medical imaging methods to developing new nuclear waste treatment methods,” he says.
The strength of Lithuania’s standing on the global laser science scene cannot be overstated. The country’s laser industry currently occupies more than 50 percent of the world’s ultrashort scientific laser market, with Lithuanian lasers installed at CERN, NASA, and leading laboratories in the US. Moreover, more than 90 of the world’s TOP 100 universities are using lasers made in Lithuania.
However, in the past decade, the Lithuanian laser sector has also made a concerted effort to gain a foothold in the industrial laser market. Driven by the solid reputation of Lithuanian scientific lasers, the transition bore great results. Today, more than half of Lithuanian laser production is sold to industrial clients, with world-famous companies like IBM, Hitachi, and Toyota choosing Lithuanian solutions.
“Lithuanian laser manufacturers sell not only lasers and laser components, but complete laser processing systems and technologies as well,” says Dr. Gediminas Račiukaitis. “In Lithuania, the value chain of laser technologies is nearly end-to-end. Our research institutions look at new phenomena and their potential applications, while laser companies produce world-class optical, mechanical, and electronic components, lasers, and laser processing systems.”
Lithuania currently exports lasers and optical components to more than 80 countries. And while Lithuanian laser companies produce a wide variety of laser solutions, femtosecond lasers are perhaps Lithuania’s flagship laser technology. Femtosecond lasers are lasers that emit optical pulses that are ultrashort – in the domain of femtoseconds, i. e., quadrillionths (or millionths of a billionth) of a second.
These lasers boast an impressive list of possible applications. Industries using these machines include medical (e.g., to produce nano-robots capable of moving in veins and delivering the drug precisely to the site of injury), micromechanics (in the production of high-precision sensors), optics and photonics (e.g. to produce microlenses for drones).
Steady growth and record-breaking achievements ahead
Lithuania has recently received another confirmation of its expertise in laser physics. The country became one of the founding members of the so-called “laser CERN” – ELI European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ELI ERIC). The governing body of ELI research facilities, the consortium unifies the world’s largest collection of super powerful and ultrafast scientific lasers.
“This international recognition is among the key achievements of the Lithuanian laser sector, and solidifies our leadership in the European laser science community,” Prof. Matijošius believes.
For the ELI facility in Hungary, Lithuanian companies Light Conversion and Ekspla are currently developing a record-breaking laser system, set to be installed in 2022. The new laser will generate 15 terawatts of power – three times the peak power compared to the system currently in place. Dubbed as being the most powerful among the fastest and the fastest among the most powerful, the laser will generate X-rays and accelerate electrons for scientific research.
The overall development of Lithuania’s laser industry has been equally powerful, with laser sales doubling every five years. And a stable annual growth rate of 10-15% year after year means that the sector can hope for a bright future ahead.
“We expect Lithuania’s laser sector to grow at least ten times until 2030,” says Dr. Račiukaitis. ”We are focusing on penetrating the industrial market and consolidating our efforts to expand the presence of our lasers in other markets, such as medical, optical and quantum communication, and defence”.
By 2025, the Lithuanian laser industry aims to contribute 1% to Lithuania’s GDP. For a small country, it is an ambitious goal. Key to achieving this target, according to Femtika’s CEO Vidmantas Šakalys, is closer inter-industry cooperation.
“Tighter cooperation between the laser industry and other industries in Lithuania – primarily semiconductors and medical applications – is the way forward,” he says. “Laser industry is instrumental to building high-tech manufacturing in Lithuania, where the key tools are laser-enabled instruments.”
Lithuania’s life sciences sector has been rising to prominence internationally for the past decade. Boosted by world-leading biotechnology research and strong educational institutions that supply businesses with top-notch talent, the sector is accelerating faster than almost anywhere else in Europe. Growing by a record 87% in 2020, Lithuania’s robust life sciences ecosystem, which includes both established players and up-and-coming startups, contributes an impressive 2.5% to Lithuania‘s GDP.
Despite of the preferred interior style, Lithuanian manufactures are up to offer some flexible, unconventional solutions. From concrete to wood, metal to artificial fabrics – all comes along in the hands of Lithuanian manufacturers, who are also well-known for capability to combine Scandinavian minimalism with warmth and elegance.