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Structured Light Laboratory launched at Wits

- Kemantha Govender

People from business and industry were treated to the fascinating work undertaken at the Structured Light Laboratory which was launched on 4 March 2016.

Professor Andrew Forbes, a Distinguished Professor and Head of the laboratory together with the 15- member team explained the purpose of the laboratory at Wits University and some of the latest research that is being conducted to over 50 interested stakeholders.

The laboratory, which started off has an empty room with old wooden tables, now offers equipment and space to carry out work at both the classical and quantum levels and includes topics that range from purely theoretical to purely experimental.

Growth in photonics

Forbes joined Wits University last year. During his presentation, he said he has a strong team that comprises post graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and visiting academics.

Forbes spoke about photonics, one of the fastest growing technology fields. He said South Africa doesn’t have an electronics nor photonics industry to speak of but small groups are starting to make a dent in this field and branching out into new technology.

“We can structure light and tailor and customize it to be almost anything that we want.”  Structured Light relates to the creation of arbitrarily complex light patterns, for example, accelerating light, non-diffracting light, vector light fields and light carrying optical vortices and orbital angular momentum. 


Forbes explained on their website that they create these fields by a range of techniques, but primarily using digital holograms written to spatial light modulators.

“We then apply such Structured Light in applications such as optical trapping and tweezing of single cells, increased optical bandwidth in free space and in fibre optical communication systems using spatial modes of light, and increased security in quantum links.  In many cases our detection schemes are also digital holograms – it is our aim to demonstrate the all-digital control of light,” Forbes explained.

Our research builds competency in mathematical algorithms applied in optics, both theoretically and computationally, non-linear optics, diffractive optical elements, micro optics, adaptive optics, refractive beam shapers, digital holograms, spatial light modulators and wavefront sensing.


In 2015, which was declared the Year of Light by UNESCO,  Forbes and his team produced 17 journal papers, won seven prizes and produced four popular articles. Team members attended 13 international conference proceedings and Forbes delivered 14 invited talks to speak at various events around the globe. This team’s work also generated significant media interest, having featured in at least 20 news stories. This unit has numerous national and international collaborators and several industry partners.

Thus far in 2016, there are four notable achievements: the creation of a vector microchip laser; the first demonstration of quantum interference in high dimensions; a new approach to packing information into light, which the group sent over free space (air) and optical fibre (glass) , as well as bringing this cutting edge science back into teaching through the use of digital holograms to demonstrate some very basic physics and mathematics in a laboratory.

Forbes said there are more projects in the pipeline for this year.

Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, DVC: Research & Postgraduate Affairs said for those people that follow global trends, the fourth revolution, based on light and photonics is about to unleashed. He added that the only way for South Africa to not miss out on this revolution is to invest in this science. Vilakazi said that he feels there will be lots of investment in physics partially because it responds to some of our global challenges. 

Main projects presently include:

  • Classical entanglement with vector vortex beams;
  • Quantum imaging;
  • Secure quantum communication with high-dimensional entangled states;
  • Propagation of spatial modes in free space and fibres for high bandwidth communication;
  • Optical imaging and control of nanostructures; and
  • Novel lasers using both the dynamic and geometric phase of light.

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