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Fibre lasers spin-off targets new markets

17 Jun 2002

A company in Denmark has been successful in finding new applications for its fibre lasers outside the battered telecommunications market. Nadya Anscombe reports.

From Opto & Laser Europe October 2001

At only three months old, Danish start-up company Koheras started running before it could walk. The firm, which specializes in distributed-feedback fibre lasers and systems, already has 12 employees and is gearing up for volume production.

But it had a considerable head-start: Koheras was formed when integrated optical-components manufacturer Ionas decided to spin-off its fibre-lasers business in July. This means that, although the company has been trading independently for only three months, it has been developing, making and selling its products for about four years.

Ionas specializes in manufacturing integrated optical components and it soon realized that this business is very different to the fibre-lasers market.

Jakob Skov, CEO of Koheras, told OLE: "At first we thought that the optical-components business and the fibre-lasers business would be addressing the same market - telecommunications. But we soon realized that there are many more applications for fibre lasers. So it was decided to spin out the fibre-laser business, as there is little overlap with the optical-components sector."Koheras targets the markets for optical sensors (acoustic, pressure, temperature and strain), hydrophones, coherent communications, test and measurement systems for telecoms, spectroscopy, gas sensors, displays and several high-end applications.

The spin-off seems to be successful, and Koheras has plans to invest in the automation of its manufacturing operation and to double its workforce by the end of 2002.

The company currently focuses on three business areas: fibre Bragg gratings, which it can make and package to customers' specifications; fibre lasers; and fibre-laser systems. "It is this last area that we are looking to expand," said Skov. "We want to move up the value chain and supply our customers with complete solutions."

Koheras's fibre lasers have an extremely stable output and ultranarrow, singlemode linewidths. According to chief technology officer Christian Poulsen, these features are what set Koheras's lasers apart from the crowd. Having reduced the linewidth in the C-band emission to 1 kHz, Poulsen believes that 100 Hz is attainable. This will give unprecedented precision to spectroscopists and those involved in applications such as earthquake sensing. It is these exceptional characteristics that have seen Koheras's fibre lasers chosen as the sources for the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Labs in the US.

"We are very proud of this contract," said Skov. "It demonstrates that our products are of high quality."

The NIF is just one of Koheras's 50 active customers. Other clients include a Norwegian company that makes sensors for the oil industry, and a UK firm that is using the fibre lasers for acoustic sensing purposes. Both of these businesses are using fibre lasers because they need to collect information quickly and electronic sensors cannot cope with harsh conditions.

Koheras has non-disclosure agreements with most of its customers because these firms are entering markets with new applications for fibre lasers. "Our products are opening new markets that previously did not exist, even in the telecommunications industry," said Skov.

Being involved in an emerging technology has its advantages and disadvantages: there are not as many competitors, but customers have to be convinced that the technology can solve their problems.

Several businesses, including large US firms such as Spectra-Physics and JDS Uniphase, have come onto the fibre-lasers market recently. But Koheras's main competitor is UK start-up Southampton Photonics - it is the only other European firm that makes distributed-feedback (DFB) fibre lasers.

Skov told OLE: "DFB fibre lasers have some attractive features over semiconductor lasers and distributed-Bragg-reflector fibre lasers. They are chosen primarily because of their high stability, polarization-maintaining-fibre output, tuning capabilities, narrow linewidth and long coherence, which is paramount in sensor interferometry.

"For applications that operate in the 1 µm wavelength region, such as spectroscopy and high-power lasers, it is also attractive to have a small, compact source that can work at any wavelength in the 1.02 to 1.20 µm range and not just at the conventional 1.064 µm wavelength."The fibre-lasers market is still an emerging one, so Koheras's competitors are not necessarily other fibre-laser technologies. "We have to convince our customers that, to solve their problems, our products are better than semiconductor lasers and solid-state lasers in some applications," said Skov.

Since Koheras does not concentrate solely on the telecommunications industry, it has not been affected by the current market conditions. "We are waiting for many of our customers to commercialize their products and we expect our business to grow considerably," said Skov. "We supply to many industries, so we are not predicting explosive growth, but we are planning a slower, steadier pace of growth."

After all, it was the tortoise and not the hare that won the race. The success of Ionas is a typical story of a company that rode the photonics wave and managed to keep its head above water despite the recent downturn. The firm's strength is that it is an independent foundry. This means that it has benefited greatly from the increasing trend in the telecommunications industry towards outsourcing the manufacture of components.

Unlike many optical-component manufacturers, Ionas has made no redundancies. Instead, it is expanding. Lars Rønn, CEO, told OLE: "We are currently shifting to 6 inch wafer production and are planning 8 inch capabilities." He says it is the reliability of the company's plasma-enhanced chemical-vapour deposition that has enabled this. "The layer control across a wafer is very important. Scale-up is easier if you have a tunable process that gives uniformity across a wafer. Arrayed waveguides are large structures and variances across the device increases noise. This makes them a good indicator of the quality of your manufacturing process."

Ionas started in 1997 as a spin-off from NKT Research after many years of collaboration with the Danish Technical University. Rønn has been CEO from the start and has watched the company grow from 5 employees to 60. "Those first few years were very exciting. I still have my first invoice framed on the wall," he said. "The market is depressed at the moment but we strongly believe in a return to growth very soon." Koheras and Ionas

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