SA scientist unveils world's first digital laser

CSIR Research Scientist Sandile Ngcobo designed the digital laser.

Professor Andrew Forbes presents the details of the world’s first digital laser at the CSIR in Pretoria, 17 Septmeber 2013. Picture: Alex Eliseev/EWN

JOHANNESBURG - Local scientists yesterday unveiled the world's first digital laser which has been hailed as a major scientific breakthrough.

The new technology could help improve or even revolutionise aspects of communication, healthcare and manufacturing.

The discovery deconstructs the traditional laser and merging it with computer technology.

Science editor and author Sarah Wild says the breakthrough in laser technology helps shatter the myth that South African scientists aren't good enough to contribute to the global community.

The breakthrough was unveiled in Pretoria yesterday giving scientists a way to incorporate computer technology into a laser in order to alter the beam which is emitted.

Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom said local scientists have earned a place in the history books after bringing the world its first digital laser.

Hanekom added the breakthrough joins the ranks of other proud South African inventions ranging from the CAT scan to the Kreepy Krauly.

"South African scientists will now be mentioned alongside Albert Einstein as contributors in the history of the development of the laser."

Research Scientist at the CSIR, Sandile Ngcobo, who designed the digital laser proudly told Talk Radio 702's John Robbie that it is his doctoral work.

Ngcobo explained the breakthrough is a result of both inspiration and a lot of hard work.

He has a background in laser development and an external knowledge of how to manipulate the laser.

"It's quite a tedious process per se. There are a lot of puzzles to overcome to get the laser to work which is why most people think it just doesn't work."

When asked if it was a 'eureka' moment when he actually got it to work, he replied that he did indeed have that moment, although maintained a calm excitement when he put the proof of concept on his supervisor's table.


No one else has completed an on-demand laser mold where one gets whatever shape one wants immediately with zero time wasted.

Asked if he could make money out of this or will he just be famous, Ngcobo happily replied he will indeed get revenue out of it.

Hanekom told Robbie that he is a fantastic young man whose breakthrough instills a sense of pride in all of South Africans.

He added that in terms of the broader picture, it tells us what our capabilities are and about our young people in South Africa.

It also puts us on the map as a country doing great science.

Hanekom said that key is to keep going where others give up.

"Boldness and imagination. To cast yourself where you want to be one day and to overcome the fear of failure, as it's only through a series of failures that you finally achieve success."


Laser technology will be used on the construction of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) in the Karoo which will consist of 3,000 dish antennas each about 15m in diameter as well as two other types of radio wave receptors known as 'aperture array antennas'.

The SKA will see back to a time before the first stars lit up via optical telescopes that see the light from stars.

Before stars existed, there was only gas.

A radio telescope with the sensitivity of the SKA can see back in time to the gas that existed before stars were even born.

The SKA will address a wide range of fundamental questions in physics, astrophysics, cosmology and astrobiology.

It will be able to investigate previously unexplored parts of the distant Universe.