17 Feb 2012
As the UK government strives to rebalance its economy towards manufacturing, M Squared Lasers shows the way with photonics innovation.
The combination of a prolonged period of global austerity and the cyclical nature of many photonics markets means that any company reporting close to 100% year-on-year revenue growth since 2008 must be doing something right. M Squared Lasers, a UK-based developer and manufacturer of advanced solid-state laser sources, is one such company with this enviable track record.
The company puts its success down to an approach that it calls “dependable innovation”. Since launching the company in 2006, the management team at M Squared has drawn on its industrial experience to develop a modular platform on which all of its sources are built and has subsequently rolled out three product families that are gaining traction in multiple demanding applications.
It is an approach that has paid many dividends. As well as the impressive growth, the business has also doubled its staffing levels year-on-year, created a US subsidiary, moved to larger headquarters to accommodate its R&D and manufacturing needs, and, most recently, appointed a high-profile chairman in the form of ex-Oclaro executive Peter Bordui. The goal is now to build the Glasgow company into a large-scale global business.
“Our vision is to be the market leader in specific, high-growth applications by providing reliable, hands-free devices in new regions of the spectrum,” Graeme Malcolm, the co-founder and CEO of M Squared, told optics.org. “We have adopted an agile, collaborative and open-minded approach and are now targeting specific established and emerging markets where our products can deliver clear benefits.”
Preparation is everything
Malcolm and managing director Gareth Maker left senior management roles at Coherent Scotland in 2006 to form M Squared Lasers – the duo having previously co-founded Microlase, which the US company acquired in 1999. Although they set out to tackle the lack of laser sources emitting in the mid-infrared and terahertz regions, Malcolm and Maker were also keen to address product design limitations that could deliver value for some more established laser sources and applications in the near-infrared.
“Customers get frustrated by high-cost, hands-on designs that are inflexible in terms of functionality,” said Malcolm. “We wanted to take a more collaborative and customer-oriented approach to laser design and manufacturing focusing on reliability and ease of use that in turn delivers extra value to the customer. The approach has extended to licensing agreements and bringing in experts from other sectors, such as our technical director Bill Miller with his background in consumer electronics.”
The two modular components that form the foundation of all M Squared products are its ICE-BLOC Ethernet-based control systems and its alignment-free, ‘fix-and-forget’ InvarianT optics and mounts. The ICE-BLOC controllers are based entirely on Internet Protocol and allow engineers at M Squared and customers to interrogate their lasers from remote sites. To accompany this, the InvarianT optics enable an enclosed hands-off design.
“These modular components are critical to having reliable laser sources,” commented Malcolm. “They are the kind of thing that should be present in any advanced laser system, regardless of wavelength. For us, the benefit is not having to start from scratch when we develop a new source, bringing products to market faster with high reliability.”
Building on the foundation
The next step was to roll these modular components out into hands-free lasers for established markets. Two families of Ti:Sapphire lasers were launched: the SolsTiS, a tunable CW Ti:S source featuring a narrow linewidth of less than 50kHz, and the Sprite, a highly cost effective, compact tunable ultrafast Ti:S source available in either ~100 fs pulse duration or broadband (100 nm) versions.
Malcolm and M Squared were keen to push these lasers into demanding applications where they would have the edge over the competition. For example, the SolsTiS has been well received by researchers in the academic community pioneering quantum optics and atomic cooling whereas the Sprite has found more commercial applications in fields ranging from multiphoton imaging to defense and security.
Although applications such as atomic cooling may not be large markets, M Squared has rapidly gained significant market share thanks to the class-leading performance of its lasers. In turn, this has generated both revenue and momentum at the company allowing it to commercialize a new product family called Firefly for high-growth markets.
Broad source, multiple applications
M Squared’s Firefly lasers are based on a broadly tunable optical parametric oscillator and two versions have been developed for remote sensing applications. First, a mid-infrared laser that is continuously tunable from around 2 microns through to 5 microns with more than 250 mW of output power - useful for identifying complex chemical and biological species at range - and second, a terahertz source covering 0.6 THz to 3.5 THz.
Video: stand-off imaging of methane gas with M Squared’s Firefly source tuned to the molecule’s 3.35 micron absorption line.
“We have targeted technology where the same laser source can be applied in multiple market sectors,” commented Malcolm. “Firefly provides wavelengths over a vast range and is equally useful for applications in defense as well as oil and gas.”
In terms of defense applications, M Squared has been working on the detection of hostile agents. A significant advance has been the development of a stand-off imager which gives the user a real-time view of a scene at range.
“Our ability to go from 2 to 5 microns with a single source that can sweep across a scene and differentiate between complex species is unique,” commented Malcolm. “More recently, we have been exploiting the tuning range and peak power of the Firefly to detect improvised explosive devices, but this work is still early stage.”
M Squared has used the same mid-infrared Firefly source and imager for oil and gas applications such as the detection of fugitive emissions from complex pipework networks at refineries. “The ability to image over a wide area and see these leaks is vital,” said Malcolm. “We can look at hydrocarbons and oils in a number of different scenarios at a range of sensitivity levels.”
The next focus for the company is to extend the range of the Firefly beyond 5 microns. One competitor in this space is the quantum cascade laser but Malcolm is confident that an upgraded Firefly would have better tunability as well as better peak and average powers. “We are making progress, and getting there fast,” he said.
About the Author
Jacqueline Hewett is a freelance science and technology journalist based in Bristol, UK.