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PowerPhotonic expands from Scotland with new site in Arizona Desert

04 Apr 2022

“Nonconventional optics” developer sets its sights on the U.S. directed energy and defense markets.

From Ford Burkhart in Tucson

Defense-oriented optics company PowerPhotonic, based in Dalgety Bay, UK, is building a design and manufacturing site in the Arizona desert.

In the past month, the firm has created PowerPhotonic Inc., in the heartland of U.S. defense sites that stretch across a swath from California to Texas. And it has recruited Mark McElhinney, with his significant resume of optics industry leadership, to be CEO of the new entity.

As part of its infrastructure “future proofing,” the 14,000 square foot facility, in Sahuarita, Arizona, about 20 miles south of Tucson and 40 miles north of the Mexico border, will open with a cleanroom “much larger than our immediate need,” McElhinney said.

The company sees a need to step up its local support for defense programs, he added. Being based in Arizona, he said, “makes it easy to interact with the main players in the directed energy market, many of whom are based in California, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado and right here in Arizona.”

Directed energy focus

Along with a main focus on directed energy projects, the new site’s markets will include original equipment manufacturers making high performance laser systems for laser processing, biomedical systems, telecoms, laser projection display, and big science.

So what will PowerPhotonic Inc. actually do in Arizona’s desert?

In short, McElhinney said, it will apply new methods to wafer-scale optics. That work, in two stages, is much like what silicon foundries do making wafers. Starting from a flat piece of silica glass, the first step involves removing material with control of location and depth, “without any constraints of symmetry (traditional optics manufacturing relies almost exclusively on rotationally symmetric parts).”

Thus, he said, it makes the final surface shape a “very accurate representation of the design.” The second stage precisely smooths the machined surface to a high grade optical finish.

The company will make, for example, an array of collimating lenses matched to an array of beams from fiber lasers or diode lasers. The optics can change the shape of a laser beam, from round to square, or even to a hexagonal shape or a ring.

In Arizona, the company plans to grow its staffing soon to about 20, and in a few years expects to see 40 staff at the new site. It will expand U.S. sales locations beyond current offices in Virginia that focus on DoD needs.

McElhinney was president of Lasertel, and earlier was a founder of Spectracom. He was a device engineer at Motorola Semiconductors before moving to Pirelli in Milan, where he helped establish DWDM amplifier and pump laser manufacturing. He has a PhD in Electrical and Electronic Engineering from the University of Glasgow.

PowerPhotonic was a spinoff in 2004 from the Institute of Photonics and Quantum Sciences at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.

US plans: Q & A with Mark McIlhenny

optics.org What are the capabilities of your custom, free-form micro-optics products? What will these products do for the customer?

Mark McElhinney “We have a lot more flexibility in our ability to design and manufacture optics than other manufacturers who are generally restricted to rotational symmetry optics, even if the radial profile is aspheric or even free form.

“This means that we can tailor an individual lens to a specific measure beam. We can, for example, manufacture optics that compensate for any positional or pointing inaccuracies in semiconductor laser arrays, enabling highly collimated outputs with uniform pointing.

“We can do the same thing for the output of fiber laser arrays, with the addition of phase front correction and optical tiling to increase brightness.

“This is especially useful in coherent beam combination systems for directed energy applications. Our technology also lets us control the shape of the overlapping outputs on a grating beam combiner to maximize the efficiency of the spectral combination process.

“Another good example of our capability is one of our latest products, a Light Tunnel Generator that is used to create a ring-shaped spot that is maintained over such a long distance that it creates a light tunnel.

“Ring shaped spots are desirable because they produce more efficient, controllable and uniform results in some laser cutting and welding applications.”

optics.org How will the new PowerPhotonic Inc. site fit in with the company’s larger development route?

McIlhenny “Our development strategy in the USA is to leverage the PowerPhotonic core technology into market opportunities in the USA by providing custom optics and integrated assemblies, developed specifically for our customer base in the USA.

“We plan to develop integrated assemblies that incorporate one or more of our optics in a form factor that will make it easy for our customers to drop into their systems.

“We also intend to continue to work on the power handling ability of our lenses by developing and qualifying antireflection coatings that are compatible with the toughest directed energy applications.”

Nonconventional optics

optics.org What unique selling propositions (USPs) will the Arizona site offer to appeal to the US market?

McIlhenny “We make nonconventional optics that solve some long-standing problems that are difficult, expensive or impractical to solve using conventional optics.

“We can even produce aligned optics with different function on both sides of a glass substrate to reduce the size and number of surface interfaces in an assembly.

“The PowerPhotonic manufacturing process is also inherently low damage, and it is followed by a proprietary surface polishing step that further improves the surface quality, thereby reducing scatter. This makes our products great for applications requiring high power handling capability. We commonly deal with tens of kilowatts, sometimes much more.”

optics.org How would you describe the competitive landscape in the US for your portfolio?

McIlhenny “Our key commercial advantage is the design flexibility that we offer our customers … if you can imagine it, then we can make it.

“The process that is used to make one lens system is the same process that is used to make hundreds or even thousands of units. It is highly automated so although there are some set-up costs, the normal cost penalty associated with small volumes is gone.”

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