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Icons of Progress

Excimer Laser Surgery

In 1980, IBM began to study the use of the excimer laser to etch polymeric materials used in packaging of silicon microchips during the manufacturing process. Three IBM researchers explored its use on various types of live tissue and made the discovery that inspired the development of LASIK eye surgery. With this laser, ophthalmologists have the ability to remove very thin amounts of corneal tissue, equal to approximately 1/200th of the thickness of a human hair, in about 2 billionths of a second. This procedure completely transformed the way doctors surgically treat common vision problems and is the reason that 20 million people today do not need to wear glasses or contact lenses.

LASIK team member James Wynne recalled that in 1981, at the time of its invention, he and his colleagues considered brain surgery to be perhaps the most valuable potential of their work with the excimer laser. In 1984, Wynne authored a paper with one of his students about using the excimer laser to assist in “implanting electrodes into brain tissue without crushing delicate neurons,” and hoped to see it happen. Wynne was prescient; in 1996, an excimer laser was successfully used to treat a brain aneurysm, and in 2010, a brain tumor. In the US, six hospitals currently offer such treatment for neuronal or vascular tissue in the brain, with several European hospitals using the excimer laser to expand treatment and surgical options.

The industrial sector has seen dozens of applications for excimer laser technology as well. A few notable examples include using the laser to merge different materials such as polymers, ceramics and glasses, in the production of ink-jet printing cartridges; or properly aligning the raw materials in a liquid crystal display (LCD) active matrix monitor; and in optical microlithography, the original use for the production of computer chips containing billions of transistors and other devices.