African Digital Laser Breakthrough Promises Future Innovation

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


For decades many African countries have experienced low investment in research and development (R&D) and scientific innovation. One of the few nations to benefit from a sophisticated university network and research and development sector was South Africa. It still ranks top on the continent for funding R&D and its high number of scientific journals.

And it seems this support has paid off in a recent innovation. The world’s first digital laser designed and built in Africa has been developed by a team of physicists at the University of KwaZulu–Natal in South Africa (, as reported in the MIT Technology Review (

This innovation joins a positive trend in Africa, where support to science, technology and R&D is rising – albeit from a very low base. In 2010 UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – found Africa was reversing decades of neglect in research and development. African countries were increasing investment in science and technology after realizing it will accelerate their connection with the global economy and help create better-quality jobs to tackle poverty. The UNESCO Science Report found Burkina Faso, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa had adopted laws to support biotechnology research, for example.

Since 2005, six new science academies have been established in Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Sudan, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. This compares to nine established between 1902 and 2004.

The proportion of GDP (gross domestic product) devoted to R&D averages 0.3 per cent in Africa, according to UNESCO.

South Africa continues to lead in R&D spending, raising its investment from 0.73 per cent of GDP in 2001 to 0.94 per cent in 2006. The country is home to 46 per cent of Africa’s scientific publications compared to 11.4 per cent in Nigeria and 6.6 per cent in Kenya (UNESCO).

Experts say the digital laser developed in South Africa is a breakthrough that will open up ever-further innovations and business opportunities.

So, what is a digital laser and what is the innovation? A laser is short form for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. It is a device that produces a concentrated light source. Unlike conventional light sources that emit a diffused, multispectral light, lasers allow for a monochromatic light beam to be concentrated on a small area. This can be used to cut an object precisely, or beamed over long distances without losing its strength.

Lasers can create immense light, heat and power at close range and are regularly used in surgery and medical diagnosis.

Conventional lasers require external devices to alter and bend the laser light beam. The digital laser allows the shape of the beam to be digitally altered internally at the touch of a computer keyboard and gives greater immediate control. This means a plethora of new shapes can be formed with the laser beam, and this can have many practical applications.

The digital laser augers in a new age of creativity with lasers and more spontaneity in how they are used. Rather than having to place a lens or mirror at the front of the casing to shape the laser beam, this innovation makes it possible to create any shape desired digitally by a computer. The research team has been able to create various complex shapes for the laser beams in experiments. One mooted use is to apply laser beams to manipulate microscopic objects – similar to the tractor beams seen in science fiction films such as “Star Trek”.

Few of us spend much time thinking about lasers, yet they are ubiquitous in the modern world and are found in many electronic products ( They play a critical part in the modern world’s economy. Some common applications for lasers include laser light shows at music concerts, bar code readers at the grocery store, or laser pointers used during public presentations. Dentists also use them to speed the hardening of fillings.

Not to exploit lasers as a technology in the modern world is equivalent to bypassing the silicon micro-chip that sits inside personal computers, electronic devices and mobile phones.


1) Digital laser: The research paper submitted by the team explaining the innovation. Website:

2) 3D Laser Hologram Kit: Now you can make your own holograms at home with the help of this innovative kit. Website:

3) Hands-On Science Kits and Demos. Website:

4) Home kit for making a Laser Theatre. Website:

5) Little Bits: littleBits is an open source library of electronic modules that snap together with magnets for prototyping, learning and fun. Website:

6) Consolidated Plan of Action for Africa’s Science and Technology adopted by African Minsters of Science and Technology in 2005. Website:

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London Edit

31 July 2013

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This work is licensed under a
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Like science and technology stories from the global South? Here are some more from the archive:

China Sets Sights on Dominating Global Smartphone Market

China Pushing Frontiers of Medical Research

China Looking to Lead on Robot Innovation

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© David South Consulting 2022

By David South Consulting

David South Consulting is an international development media and consulting service. Designing human development and health. Editor and writer of Southern Innovator.



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