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Alfalight is latest optics firm to get CIA investment

01 Mar 2011

The advanced laser diode manufacturer Alfalight has secured an undisclosed investment from In-Q-Tel, the venture wing of the CIA.

In-Q-Tel, the technology investment arm of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), has signed a strategic investment and technology agreement with Madison, Wisconsin, photonics company Alfalight.

Alfalight made its name in the development of high-reliability aluminum-free laser diodes (hence the company name), and has more recently branched out into laser subsystems and visible laser systems, with a focus on high-end applications in military, aerospace and telecommunications markets.

"Our partnership with In-Q-Tel enables the expansion of Alfalight's technologies into important governmental applications," said Mohan Warrior, president and CEO of Alfalight.

"We are proud to support the mission of IQT by providing ground-breaking new products to better serve the intelligence and defense communities."

The investment is just the latest in a number of deals by In-Q-Tel to support the development of photonics-led technologies. Other recent moves include investment in the advanced camera specialists Pelican Imaging (July 2010) and LensVector (April 2010).

In November last year, In-Q-Tel invested in Advanced Photonix, the Michigan-based company that makes high-speed optical receivers for a variety of high-end applications including terahertz detection. Other investments include SpectraFluidics, a Californian start-up that specializes in surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) systems for security applications such as airport screening, and OpGen, which has developed an optical mapping system for genome analysis.

Aluminum-free designs
Alfalight, whose last investment was a $2.5 million equity deal in August 2008, started out by targeting the booming optical telecommunications market when it was founded out of the University of Wisconsin and Reed Center for Photonics back in 1998.

At that time, its key innovation was producing high-reliability laser diodes that did not have any aluminum content in their semiconductor structure – then thought to be the root cause of many early device failures.

After the telecoms bubble burst, the company took part in the Super High efficiency Diode Sources (SHEDS) program funded though the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), with a goal of developing 80% efficient diode lasers, and in 2004 it demonstrated a 50 W laser bar with a claimed efficiency of more than 70%.

More recently, Alfalight has been focused on high-power sources for industrial laser applications, and it released a series of 3.5 W, 808 nm emitters just over a year ago.

But the company has also developed a green laser system that might be of more specific interest to In-Q-Tel. Alfalight’s non-lethal optical disruptor, known as “NLOD”, emits 330 mW of green laser power, and could be used to dazzle adversaries.

Alfalight says that the NLOD can suppress targets at a distance of up to 700 m (it is only deemed eye-safe at a distance of more than 20 m), and that it could also be used as a warning signal from up to 2 km away. The 532 nm laser can be used in either CW or pulsed modes, but only has a battery life of 2 hours when in use.

In 2007, Alfalight looked all set to be acquired by the Australian company Arasor, which was targeting TV display applications of laser diodes. However, that deal fell through and in early 2008 Arasor instead bought Novalux for $7 million.

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