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Infrared detector expert sees rapid market growth

07 Dec 2005

XenICs of Belgium is developing a new breed of compact and uncooled infrared cameras based on compound semiconductor detectors. Jacqueline Hewett spoke to the firm's founder Bob Grietens to find out what applications are adopting the technology.

JH: How was XenICs formed and how has it grown?

BG: XenICs is a spin-off from IMEC in Leuven, Belgium. IMEC, the Inter-university Microelectronics Centre, is one of Europe's leading independent research centres for microelectronics and nanotechnology and was founded 20 years ago. XenICs is a spin-out dedicated to infrared technology - namely high-performance compound semiconductor arrays and cameras.

XenICs was founded five years ago, in October 2000, with initial venture-capital funding of €3.75 m. In June 2003 we raised an additional €1.5 m from existing shareholders and new investors. We started selling products in 2003 and have been growing ever since. We started off with five or six people and we are now 17. We hope to reach 20 by the end of the year.

We stayed in the IMEC for almost five years but we moved to new offices in August this year. We are still close to IMEC and use its equipment to make our indium gallium arsenide (InGaAs) detector arrays.

What were your initial products?

We started off developing products on the chip level - such as InGaAs linear arrays and 2D focal plane arrays. However, we quickly realized that it was easier to sell full camera systems. It takes longer to enter the market and to create revenues based on chip-level products. Your customers need to integrate the chip, and then it takes time before they sell their product and you begin to see repeat orders for larger volumes [of chips]. Selling full camera systems means we are closer to the market and to end-users.

How has your product portfolio expanded?

When we moved from chips to cameras, we also went into different wavelengths. We now have a full range of cameras covering wavelengths from 1 to 14 μm. These cameras feature InGaAs detectors for the near-infrared operating from 0.9 to 2.5 μm and InSb detectors for the mid-infrared from 3 to 5 μm. We also offer OEM products as well as custom-designed infrared imaging devices. We make all of our InGaAs arrays but we also offer cameras based on MCT detectors and microbolometers, for example.

We address both academic and industrial customers. We have high-end, high-speed, high-resolution cameras and lower-cost cameras for people in industry who need larger volumes and lower prices. For example, our high-speed cameras run up to 350 Hz full frame with a resolution of 320 × 256 pixels. If you reduce the size of the window, the speed will increase up to 10 kHz. These are going into industrial applications as well as academia for people studying the decay of fast thermal processes.

To give you an example of some of our new products, we have recently introduced a high-end InGaAs focal plane camera offering a resolution of 320 × 256 pixels and sensitive between 0.9 and 1.7 μm. Applications include hyperspectral imaging, laser beam profiling, semiconductor inspection, thermal imaging of hot objects and night vision.

We have also introduced linear InGaAs detector arrays operating from 1.1 to 2.5 μm with 128, 256 and 512 pixels. These detectors are specifically suited to near-infrared spectroscopy and line-scan imaging applications.

What are the unique features of your cameras?

There are a number of issues. In terms of the InGaAs focal plane array cameras, we are the only company in Europe making this sort of camera. Another significant advantage is that our InGaAs technology does not require cooling for standard imaging applications (but can be added to improve dark current for longer integration times). The detectors are manufactured on large and cheap substrates at high yield. Our in-house proprietary flip-chip hybridization process also means that the detectors can be made very small.

The chip can be made the same size as a standard CCD or CMOS detector. It can then be integrated into a small package making the resulting camera smaller than typical cooled infrared cameras. Our product range includes an InGaAs camera which is 5 × 5 × 5 cm (not including the lens) and a cooled camera measuring just 10 × 10 × 10 cm.

Flexibility is important as well. For example, you can easily change a number of settings so that one of our cameras can be applied to a range of applications.

What applications do you sell your products into?

Our products cover a broad range of traditional as well as emerging applications in the industrial, academic and consumer markets. A lot of people are just beginning to see what these cameras can do as the technology is still very much in its infancy. There are a lot of untapped applications.

That said, we've already seen a lot of use of InGaAs cameras in hyperspectral imaging for applications such as waste sorting or moisture measurements. They are also used in space applications to look at forests, other vegetation and clouds.

InGaAs focal plane cameras can profile the beam emitted by lasers operating at 1.3 and 1.5 μm and for active illumination applications such as gated imaging. You can also use this technology to check a laser's alignment.

One interesting application is that you can see through paintings and study the sketches underneath. Art museums like to use this to study the authenticity of the painting or to see what the artist originally wanted to do. In addition, we have consumer and medical applications for skin and dental research.

So, on the one hand XenICs has OEM customers requiring large volumes for industrial applications, but on the other there are research labs and universities looking at new applications with higher-end cameras.

Where are your customers in terms of geography?

We are of course focusing on Europe as this is our home market and we do a lot via our distributor, LOT Oriel. We are active in the US and Japan where we have representatives. As far as the remainder of Asia and the rest of the world is concerned, we hope to create a network to sell there over time. Our plan is to expand the business both in terms of our sales network and our product range.

How much growth do you predict there will be in the infrared imaging market?

I believe the market will have a compound annual growth rate of 25% - the infrared market does not follow the volatile nature of the semiconductor industry. The market for infrared detectors is on the verge of an explosion with a shift to uncooled and cheap devices. These devices will revolutionize the global market for infrared spectroscopy, infrared imaging and non-contact temperature measurement.

Many exciting applications will be seen in the coming years and XenICs will play a leading role in the expansion using its state-of-the-art InGaAs compound semiconductors.

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