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Quebec: Canada's north pole of optoelectronics

21 Jul 2006

On the brink of its 400th anniversary, Quebec City is a must on the tourist trail. But around the city's famous stone walls there is also a hotbed of photonic activity, from the city's three cutting-edge R&D centres to dozens of diverse companies. Matthew Peach reports from Canada's National Optics Institute and profiles three up-and-coming Quebecois players.

Since the mid-1980s, Quebec City has established itself as a thoroughly modern "pole" of optics and photonics. The region around the city, which lies some 270 km north-east of Montreal, is now home to established companies such as Exfo, Teraxion and Telops, numerous start-ups, key research centres and Laval University, which is currently redeveloping its photonics department.

The research organizations are the Defence Research Development Centre and the National Optics Institute, better known by its French acronym, INO.

The INO R&D centre was founded in 1985 and is based in nearby Sainte Foy. At that time many graduate students emerging from Laval found that they had to relocate to other provinces or countries to find suitable work in physics and photonics. The prime minister of the time was Brian Mulroney, a Quebecois, who decided to try to stem this brain drain by supporting the development of INO in Quebec.

Today the role of INO's 200 employees is to transfer the knowledge from photonics R&D projects into industry and the marketplace. "We want to know what our customers are looking for, which means that we also need to know what our customers' customers are looking for," said Pierre Talbot, INO's business development manager. "We develop intellectual property (IP) in photonics and transfer that to industry."

According to Talbot there are several ways to transfer this photonics IP, including:

  • developing prototypes - for example, Optosecurity, a spin-off company based at INO, has developed an enhancement technique for airport X-ray scanners that automates the detection of threats (e.g firearms, gun parts, knives, explosives, components etc.) in baggage, parcels and even people.
  • small-scale production - INO has developed small volumes of a laser hair-removal system, a safer mammography technology and a novel laser 3D camera. The idea here is that if a product takes off then it is commercialized by a spin-off or partner company. INO estimates that 50% of Quebecois who buy laser hair-removal systems are using a product developed on the doorstep.

INO funding

INO is a private organization but unusually it is also part-publicly funded. It receives funds from both Quebec provincial government and from the Canadian government. Between 2001 and 2005, a total of C$60 m (€42 m) was invested in the organization.

The 2006 INO budget is C$30 m, about half of which comes from the governments. Over the past 15 years INO has been awarded a total of around 3000 contracts from both state and industry sources, equivalent to about 200 jobs per year.

"We have just signed a new deal with the province of Quebec to receive C$10 m per year for the next three years," said AndrĂ© Parent, INO's director of photonics, fibre and lasers. "We expect to secure a similar level of investment from the Canadian government again."

INO consists of three divisions:

  • photonics, fibre and lasers;
  • applied optical systems;
  • micro device and fabrication.

The institute also operates a foundry and develops its own MEMS on a small scale. Parent is keen to stress that, unlike staff at a pure research centre, INO staff need to focus on the business potential of the technology.

The laser hair-removal and mammography systems are just two examples of INO innovations that have progressed to commercial production. Another is the Autolog wood-processing technology that optimizes the cuts made in a log - important for Canada's massive timber industry.

INO also developed the world's first optical hypoglycaemia detecting "watch" worn on the wrist, and a new type of molecular imager assesses the progress of a drug through the body during treatment.

Furthermore, INO is working with the European Space Agency to develop satellite imaging applications such as for forest fire surveillance and in related applications in combusion gas analysis.

Considering the military dimension of two of Quebec City's key research centres and the increased funding available for security systems generally, it is not surprising that a common theme to the R&D activities of many of the surrounding companies is in security, surveillance, inspection and military-related technologies.

Another factor behind this observation is that many of the older Quebec-based companies are post-telecoms bubble survivors, which have had to adapt from that market-place into more fruitful areas.

Optosecurity

Optosecurity, which is based in INO's incubator building, has developed an optics-based technology called the OptoScreener that both enhances the images from security scanning systems (such as airport X-ray machines) and classifies potential threats such as firearms, knives, gun parts, explosives and the like by their shapes.

In August 2005, Jean Lachapelle, Opto Security's VP of product management, joined the company when it comprised just a handful of people. Less than a year later the VC-backed firm had grown by 300% and has already raised C$5.1 m.

"Basically, what we are trying to do is prevent terrorists, criminals and negligent people passing through checkpoints with lethal weapons, prohibited items or explosives," he told OLE. "We can also check parcels going through the post - in fact, anything that can go through an X-ray machine."

Optosecurity's innovation is based on an earlier development at neighbouring INO called the optical correlator, a combination of optics and software that allows fast Fourier transforms to be performed. "We have taken that system and improved on it. We are meeting a market need that is the automation of this sophisticated type of screening and detection," added Lachapelle. "The aim is that our optical computer system will assist the human screeners in detecting a larger number of threats, while significantly reducing subjectivity and variability in the screening process."

The Optosecurity system collects the standard image from the X-ray scanner, processes it through its in-house developed software and patented optics, and compares suspect shapes with a library of potential threat images. It will classify metal guns and gun parts and can even detect certain polymer weapon parts, which some criminals mistakenly believe to be invisible to X-rays.

Optosecurity demonstrated proof of its concept in April 2006 to a number of government agencies and is aiming to have product sales in the near future. The company is already working on improving the detection of threats and prohibited items at airports.

Obzerv Technologies

Obzerv Technologies, based in central Quebec City, develops and manufactures high-performance active imaging night-vision systems that are optimized for short-, medium- and long-range surveillance applications. The company was founded in March 2002 and secured C$4 m in private financing from Extreme CCTV in September 2003.

By incorporating innovative range-gating technology, Obzerv's active imaging night-vision systems increase visibility through light pollution, fog, snow, dust and rain - conditions that often hinder activities such as coastal surveillance, antiterrorism operations, and search and rescue. Called the ATV 2000i (Active Television 2000 Identification), the system, developed in the early 1990s at DRDC, enables operators to see objects through glass, an indispensible feature for observing building and vehicle interiors.

"The key to our patented development is that it is an actively gated optical arrangement. The camera and source combine to produce a long-distance reading system," said Deni Bonnier, Obzerv's president. "For example, we can read a ship's name from more than 5 km distant in the dark and in certain harsh weather conditions."

Active in this case means that the system employs a pulsed infrared laser source to illuminate the target and the camera shutter is synchronized to the time of flight.

Obzerv is now manufacturing a new model of the camera that will do the same job but at half the size of the prototype. The technology's absolute distance capability has been up to 37 km in tests but the typical operating distance is 10 km.

"We have already delivered a system to the US Navy. Our next-generation system will be military capable, thus also ruggedized. It could read a ship's name at 7 km, for example," said Bonnier. "In our technology we are using the beauty of two things: an image intensifier such as is used in night-vision goggles and a laser diode that gives the illuminating output. It's a small, high-efficiency beam at 808 or 860 nm."

The active imaging system employs 150 laser diodes per device, each of which is specified to transmit with a beam of 40° divergence. This is reduced to 1.25° by a patented collimator developed at INO and transferred to Obzerv through an exclusive worldwide licence. The lasers are pulsed at typically 10-15k Hz. Laser power, variable between 0-15 W, is adjusted according to the type and distance of targets. The field of illumination is adjusted to suit the desired view of the camera and to maintain a constant illumination over the target.

"The lens needs to be coated to operate at the laser wavelength and we enable transmission efficiency of 85-90% of the laser output," said Bonnier. "We have measured the maximum transmission of some off-the-shelf telescopes and typically they achieve only 45% efficiency, so to get the desired result we need to develop our own scopes."

Telops

Telops, also based in Quebec City, performs contract R&D work in the area of testing and developing optical sensors and laser diodes. Its clients are often large organizations in the military and aerospace sectors.

"We are seeing a significant shift with the laser diode manufacturers towards higher powers," said Jean Giroux, Telops' president and general manager. "We are working with most of the main diode laser manufacturers."

Key developments at Telops include a new economical laser diode testing station, the V500 and the FIRST (Fourier transform infrared spectral technology). To date, Telops' interest in the laser diode area has been concerned mainly with testing, but with the V500 the company is taking a step towards the manufacturing side.

The FIRST is a hyperspectral camera, which is optimized for gas spectroscopy and gas detection, and is supplied in a portable package the size of a small briefcase. It offers the features of a high-sensitivity thermal imager but with 1000 spectral points for each infrared element (or colour), and it is designed to identify various gases remotely.

Most of the gases in the infrared range have a very specific signature and algorithms make it possible to perform analysis and detection. The FIRST functions at up to 5 km and can detect gases such as sulphur hexafluoride (an inert insulating gas) and ammonia vapour. It suits battlefield and security applications, and environmental monitoring.

"The FIRST has been completely developed now and it is selling from about C$500,000," said Giroux. "Mid- and long-wavelength versions are available. We have already delivered several in North America and we have recently received our first European order from the University of Madrid."

Telops also has a project for NIST in Washington DC and has recently installed a cryogenic chamber at its Quebec headquarters. The aim is to test sensors at low temperatures to determine their sensitivity in space applications. It is the mandate of NIST to provide calibration and validation of such sensors.

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