Since lasers were invented in 1960, they have penetrated countless scientific, industrial and recreational fields: from eye surgery to DVD players, from cutting steel to triggering ignition in missile stages.
That last use is a target market for Alfalight, a University of Wisconsin-Madison spinoff that set out in 1999 to use patented technology to make lasers for the telecommunications industry. At the time, “a tremendous need was forecast for these high-power, reliable lasers in telecom,” says Ron Bechtold, Alfalight’s vice president of marketing and sales.
Lasers emit a coherent, single-color beam of light that can travel great distances. But as power output rises, the large electric current that drives the laser can create enough heat to destroy it.
In the 1990s, two professors of electrical and computer engineering at UW–Madison, Luke Mawst and Dan Botez, patented inventions that made great strides in making high-power lasers more efficient and robust. In 1999, with grad student Thomas Earles, they founded Alfalight in Madison and licensed their patents from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.
Today, Alfalight’s 16 employees include engineers and physicists. About half of them have degrees from UW-Madison.
The company name derives from one of its key advances: lasers that are aluminum (Al) free. “Not having aluminum in the cavity allows the generation of huge amounts of optical power without damaging the end facet of the laser where the light emerges,” says Rob Williamson, director of product and business development.
Aluminum is easily oxidized into a compound that does not conduct electricity, Williamson says. “By eliminating aluminum, you get lower resistance, so more of the current turns into light, which raises efficiency.”
It also reduces waste heat, which can otherwise pose “a huge problem,” says Williamson, who has a Ph.D. in physics from UW-Madison. The light source in the Alfalight lasers produces as much heat as a similar area at the surface of the sun.
Because the lasers are built with the same techniques used for semiconductors, they are inherently tough and reliable, Williamson says.
Back at the turn of the century, Alfalight’s revolutionary laser technology seemed perfectly suited to the telecom market — except that the market vanished while Alfalight readied its production. “As a company, we were left with a good technology and good people, and it was time to think: What market can we serve?” says Williamson.
Starting in 2003, Alfalight began selling to military and industrial markets. In 2009, having survived the Great Recession, it began developing a “non-lethal ocular disruptor,” which delivers a blast of green laser light that temporarily overwhelms the retina in the eye.
The disruptor is designed as a non-lethal option for dealing with speeding vehicles in war zones. “The typical scenario is someone racing toward a checkpoint,” says Williamson. “Is it a guy who is racing to the hospital because his wife is about to give birth? Or is he delivering a bomb? This is eye-safe, but it sends a very clear signal: ‘You better stop or something worse can happen.’”
In March 2013, the company’s semiconductor laser fabrication wing and technology were sold to Compound Photonics, a Phoenix firm that makes components for solid-state projectors. Compound Photonics credits the technology it bought from Alfalight as key to a hot new product: a high-definition, efficient projector that could convert a smartphone into a miniature movie projector.
Overall, Alfalight’s story is “interesting and typical for startups,” says Bechtold. “Originally we had an idea that came out of UW-Madison, and we went after a very exciting market, but it did not work out. So we had investment, talent and technology, and we went looking for a new market.”
Earles is now working with Alfalight’s other two founders on a new laser-related startup.
Speed is one of the key lessons he takes away from Alfalight. “When you are with a startup company, every day matters. The College of Engineering provided access to equipment to do early stage product development work at the university. This was critical to making technical progress until our own facilities were built.”
Earles adds that speed can be as critical as money in getting startups on their feet.
Today, Alfalight is in the final running for major contracts for the ocular disruptor and the missile-ignition technology. “The challenge is to grow sustainably, carefully,” says Williamson. “You can’t grow too fast, and you can’t grow too slowly.”
David Tenenbaum, 608-265-8549, firstname.lastname@example.org
Rob Williamson | newswise
Astronomers discover class of strange objects near our galaxy's enormous black hole
16.01.2020 | University of California - Los Angeles
MOSHEMT—innovative transistor technology reaches record frequencies
16.01.2020 | Fraunhofer-Institut für Angewandte Festkörperphysik IAF
Styrofoam or copper - both materials have very different properties with regard to their ability to conduct heat. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research (MPI-P) in Mainz and the University of Bayreuth have now jointly developed and characterized a novel, extremely thin and transparent material that has different thermal conduction properties depending on the direction. While it can conduct heat extremely well in one direction, it shows good thermal insulation in the other direction.
Thermal insulation and thermal conduction play a crucial role in our everyday lives - from computer processors, where it is important to dissipate heat as...
In order to advance the transfer of research developments from the field of quantum sensor technology into industrial applications, an application laboratory is being established at Fraunhofer IAF. This will enable interested companies and especially regional SMEs and start-ups to evaluate the innovation potential of quantum sensors for their specific requirements. Both the state of Baden-Württemberg and the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft are supporting the four-year project with one million euros each.
The application laboratory is being set up as part of the Fraunhofer lighthouse project »QMag«, short for quantum magnetometry. In this project, researchers...
Microtubules, filamentous structures within the cell, are required for many important processes, including cell division and intracellular transport. A...
Researchers from the University Hospital Zurich, ETH Zurich, Wyss Zurich and the University of Zurich have developed a machine that repairs injured human livers and keep them alive outside the body for one week. This breakthrough may increase the number of available organs for transplantation saving many lives of patients with severe liver diseases or cancer.
Until now, livers could be stored safely outside the body for only a few hours. With the novel perfusion technology, livers - and even injured livers - can now...
A balloon-borne scientific instrument designed to study the origin of cosmic rays is taking its second turn high above the continent of Antarctica three and a half weeks after its launch.
SuperTIGER (Super Trans-Iron Galactic Element Recorder) is designed to measure the rare, heavy elements in cosmic rays that hold clues about their origins...
16.01.2020 | Event News
15.01.2020 | Event News
07.01.2020 | Event News
17.01.2020 | Life Sciences
17.01.2020 | Power and Electrical Engineering
17.01.2020 | Life Sciences