Flamin’ brilliant

Trail-blazing Technology for Sydney Olympic Torch

Professor Jim Piper gave his first lecture on the science of lasers as a teenager. It was 1964, and he was encouraged by a school-teacher to share his fascination with the then emerging technology in a public forum. 

“Lasers are a technology that’s just endemic now: the laser industry is worth tens of billions of dollars a year and has had huge impact on people’s lives. The medical, defence, engineering, communications and entertainment industries all use lasers,” he explains. 

“It’s a technology that’s important in modern life with a fifty year history: the first visible laser was invented in 1960. The growth of the technology is highly complex and involves a combination of different parts of physics.” 

On leaving school, Professor Piper pursued his passion for physics at the University of Otago in New Zealand initially, completing his undergraduate studies in 1968 and his PhD in 1971. He then left for the UK to become a Research Fellow in the Clarendon Laboratory of the University of Oxford, before moving to Australia to join the staff of Macquarie in 1975. In 1984, he was appointed Professor of Physics at the University, and went on to hold a number of senior roles in the Faculty of Science, including Dean, Head of Department of Physics and Director of the Centre for Laser Applications. 

Over the next decade, Professor Piper led the way in establishing productive research collaborations with industry. He worked with a British company to develop high-precision flow controllers for drug delivery – using high-powered ultra-violet lasers to drill microscopic holes, many times smaller than a human hair, in plastics. He also worked with his team on developing new techniques for high-precision micromachining of metals using high-power visible lasers. 

In the mid-1990s, his work led to a key collaboration with an Australian company that specialised in laser machining. The outcome was the development of a high-power copper laser drilling system which took laser micromachining of metals to a new level of speed and precision. With the Sydney Olympics approaching in 2000, Professor Piper and his team were then given the unique opportunity to contribute to the manufacture of a sporting icon. 

“The Olympic Torch has its own mythology,” he explains. “Essentially, each generation of the torch is the result of technical innovation in the host country. For the Sydney Olympics, there were 15,000 torches required for the relay, and their manufacture required sophisticated technology.” 

Developing the right gas mixture, to ensure the flame was very bright without too much soot, was a challenge met by another Australian university; Professor Piper’s team was assigned the task of ensuring the gas burnt at a constant rate, so that the size and burn-time of each flame could be controlled and predicted. This required drilling microscopic holes in paper-thin metal foil to ensure the gas flowed at a specific rate. 

“The specifications were quite complex. The torches required very small holes – 75 microns in diameter, about half the width of a human hair – to be drilled in brass foil that was 200 microns thick, or one fifth of a millimetre,” explains Professor Piper. 

“No one had worked out how to do this. The holes had to be round and extremely accurate. You couldn’t just point the laser at the foil – it would punch, melt and make a mess. We had to undertake research and develop the technology: we had to reach a fuller understanding of how the energy of the laser beam interacted with the surface of the metal.” 

After several months of research, the demonstration holes were presented to the Sydney Olympic Committee and the torches were manufactured. Full records were provided for each individual hole, in microscopic detail. Professor Piper watched with pride, as he saw the results of his team’s endeavours held high by athletes running from Greece to Asia, along the Great Wall of China and eventually, to Australia. 

“When Cathy Freeman and those wonderful athletes carried the torch, our research and development was inside. We made the torch work. There was no-one else in the world who could achieve that, at the time,” says Professor Piper. The laser technology was so advanced, the next hosts of the Olympic Games also turned to Macquarie and its industry contacts for help. 

“It’s an open secret that Greece approached the same Australian company to manufacture their torches for the 2004 Olympic Games and we drilled all the holes for the Greek torches. By then, we had changed the type of laser and we had it down to a fine art. We had a video of every hole as it was produced – they were certified, effectively, in their little piece of brass.” 

Today, Professor Piper’s commitment to research with impact continues to drive innovation at Macquarie University. He was appointed Deputy Vice Chancellor – Research in 2003, and spent the next decade fostering a culture of dynamic and productive cooperation with Australian industry. 

Appointed a Fellow of the Optical Society of America in 1994, Professor Piper has also received a number of awards during his career, including the Pawsey Medal from the Australian Academy of Science (1982), the Walter Boas Medal from the Australian Institute of Physics (1984), the AOS Medal from the Australian Optical Society (1997), and the Carnegie Centenary Professorship (2006) from the Carnegie Trust of the Universities of Scotland. In 2014, Professor Piper was acknowledged for his ‘significant service to tertiary education, particularly through research in applied laser physics’, by becoming a Member of the Order of Australia. Although he retired in 2013, Professor Piper continues to be a role model for younger scientists at the University, and throughout Australia. 

“The Olympic Torch story was built on a lifetime of understanding: there was commercial benefit for Australian industry and, through the Olympics, there was benefit for the entire country.” 

“It was research with impact: a principle that is enshrined in the ethos of Macquarie University by statute. This is a University that is engaged and committed. I am proud that it has always been part of Macquarie’s culture that we pursue research for the benefit of the community.”

Hear our conversation with Professor Jim Piper

View our Research collaboration and partnership page for more information on research partnerships.

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