Mountains & Minds Magazine:

With laser intensity

October 12, 2011 -- by Anne Cantrell

In a secure laboratory located just south of the Montana State University campus, one small company is developing technology with implications that stretch far beyond the farmland and snow-covered mountains visible from its windows.

S2 Corporation is developing a sophisticated system that uses antennas, lasers and crystals to track and locate radio frequencies--including communications, radar, and other transient signal burst, some of which can be used to set off roadside bombs that kill U.S. soldiers and civilians. Kris Merkel, president and chief executive officer of S2, calls the technology "a game changer" that has immediate applications in defense, homeland security and, eventually, commercial markets.

By beaming a laser at the small crystal, the light the crystal absorbs actually becomes meaningful data, Merkel said. Modulating radio waves on a laser then enable the crystal to analyze and process enormous portions of the radio spectrum simultaneously. Some of the data could provide extraordinarily useful information to aid the U.S. military's goal of controlling the radio frequency spectrum during a conflict.

The work at S2 Corporation, and other companies in the area like it, is closely linked to MSU. In this case, much of the intellectual property that S2 Corporation uses was pioneered by researchers from the MSU physics department and the Spectrum Lab, with more than 14 patents either co-developed with or licensed from MSU, according to Merkel.

That kind of relationship exists because more than 15 years ago, university leaders saw opportunities in lasers and optics, so they designed a program to strengthen MSU's offerings in the area. Since then, faculty members, students and alumni from several MSU departments have been contributing important research and technologies to the growing field. In the process, they're developing technologies that have the potential to make the world a better place. And, they are creating high-paying jobs and industry in Montana State's backyard--leading the way to a new future for MSU graduates and the Gallatin Valley.

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Since the first working laser was introduced in 1960, lasers have been steadily increasing in use and scope around the world. Still, their applications are often taken for granted.

Yet, lasers are everywhere. Lasers are used at grocery stores to scan bar codes. In classrooms and theaters, laser technology in DVDs and Blu-ray discs brings educational tools and entertainment to the masses. Welders use lasers to fuse pieces of metal. Lasers enable communication at the speed of light. They transform stadiums into high-energy, pulsing light shows. They have revolutionized eye surgery, enabling imperfect vision to be corrected.

Most people understand that lasers involve light. But, laser light is different in three ways from the natural light that humans are accustomed to seeing. First, natural light--such as sunlight--is composed of many different colors. Laser light contains only one color, or wavelength, at a time. That one color can be visible as red or blue or green, or it can be a color with wavelengths humans cannot see. Also, the wavelengths hit their highs and lows in sync, in contrast to the waves of natural light, which oscillate with their peaks occurring randomly. Finally, laser light waves all travel more parallel to each other, in the same direction, than a typical light beam. As a result, laser light beams are narrow and can be concentrated in one small spot by focusing with a lens.

Because laser lights have these characteristics, they are able to produce small points of intense power. This focused power makes it possible to control laser light for a variety of purposes.

MSU's laser optics program grew out of both need and opportunity.

In the early '80s, faculty members in physics and other related fields recognized that their students had few job prospects in Montana after graduation. In fact, the situation was so bleak it was almost a foregone conclusion that graduates would have to leave the state in order to find work, said longtime physics faculty member John Carlsten.

To combat the problem, Carlsten began collaborating with ILX Lightwave, a local company that had recently begun operating in the area, while faculty member Rufus Cone began collaboration with Scientific Materials Corp. John Stover, a former MSU electrical engineering professor, helped found TMA Associates, and he and Fred Cady, another electrical engineering faculty member, began a company-MSU collaboration.

Bob Swenson, then MSU's vice president of research and Gary Strobel, then head of Montana Experimental Program for Stimulating Competitive Research (EPSCoR), encouraged Carlsten, Cone, Cady and Lee Spangler to write a proposal to the National Science Foundation for funds to build a significant program in laser optics at MSU through strategic hiring.

"Gary and Bob thought the university could think bigger. They took my vision of interacting with one business and expanded it much further," Carlsten said.

The result was the Optical Technology Center, or OpTeC, started in 1995 with Carlsten at its helm. The interdisciplinary research and education center promotes education, research and jobs in Montana, particularly in the area of optical science and engineering.

Soon after OpTeC's inception, Carlsten and other faculty and members of the community began a series of annual meetings focused on optical technology where people shared their research and ideas. Enthusiasm quickly spread, Carlsten said.

When OpTec began, MSU had just four faculty in laser optics. Today, there are 24, primarily in the departments of electrical and computer engineering, physics, chemistry and biochemistry, and mathematical sciences. OpTeC faculty have won significant awards nationally and internationally. Among other distinctions, they are recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award given by the White House and fellows of the Optical Society of America, the American Physical Society and the International Society of Optics and Photonics.

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Just as OpTeC was getting its start, a few companies related to the laser optics industry popped up in Bozeman.

One was Scientific Materials, a company started by Ralph Hutcheson, a 1954 Montana State mechanical engineering graduate and native of Havre. Hutcheson had worked in industrial centers in California, Indiana and other states.

"We needed people who had technical skills to provide information associated with what we were trying to achieve," Hutcheson said. "The only place we could get that was from a university."

Possible locations in Oregon, Washington and Montana fizzled, so Hutcheson settled on Bozeman as the best spot to launch Scientific Materials. The company, which came to the valley in 1989, eventually became known around the world for growing high-quality crystals for use in laser technology. They are the same crystals that S2 Corporation uses. In fact, S2 Corporation spun out of MSU's Spectrum Lab in 2004 as a division of Scientific Materials and then spun off of Scientific Materials as a separate company when Hutcheson retired and sold the enterprise in 2005.

Opportunities for both MSU students and local companies have grown over the years.

Since the first optics company came to Bozeman in 1980, 32 optics-related companies have formed in the area, with 27 of them still operating in the Gallatin Valley. MSU graduates started 15 of the 32 companies. Those numbers equal significant job creation and a more diversified economy in the Gallatin Valley, said Joe Shaw, an electrical and computer engineering professor at MSU and the current director of OpTeC.

The numbers also give Bozeman the distinction of being home to twice the number of optics companies per capita as Tucson, Ariz., which is widely regarded as a major center of the optical industry, Shaw said.

In addition, the number of collaborations between local companies and MSU is growing. In 1993, there were three collaborative relationships. Ten years later, the number had jumped to seven. This year, there are at least 16 university-industry collaborations in lasers and optics.

Part of the numbers also can be attributed to the Spectrum Lab, which was established in 1999 to act as a bridge between MSU-grown optics technology and industry, as well as to give MSU students an opportunity to work on technology as it transitions from science to products. The lab collaborates with several companies in Bozeman, including S2 Corporation and Bridger Photonics, which both spun out of research developed in the lab. The lab also has trained many of the scientists who are now working in industries in Bozeman, according to Merkel.

Now, many in the field say Bozeman is recognized around the globe for its pioneering and wide-ranging work in optics.

"This area is internationally regarded as a very strong center for optics and optical companies," Carlsten said. "That might surprise a lot of people."

A past president of the Optical Society of America and retired administrator at the University of Arizona agreed.

"The group at Montana State is probably the best laser optics group anywhere for the size they are," said Richard Powell, who was on the faculty at UA before becoming dean of its College of Optical Sciences and, later, vice president of research. As president of the Optical Society of America, Powell also frequently traveled around the world, visiting numerous optics programs.

"MSU [optics faculty] could work professionally anywhere in the world they want to," he said. "They're that good."

In addition, the optics companies are a huge boon to the area, said Tom McCoy, MSU vice president for research.

"This is a very lucrative part of the economy in the valley," McCoy said. "The companies provide good paying jobs in a wonderful environment. And, they produce clean, high-quality products while generating taxes and further stimulating the economy.

"Any investment is far surpassed by the economic return," he added.

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Bridger Photonics, one high-tech company run by MSU graduates, is making its home in the same building that houses S2 Corporation.

"For one of our projects, we're working with the (U.S.) Navy," said Pete Roos, one of Bridger Photonics' founders and owners.

Bridger Photonics is developing a technology that would allow Navy pilots to see farther and more quickly through clouds of sand and dust that are whipped up by helicopter blades. Because of the dust and sand, pilots can't see cables, people and other things on the ground, leading to helicopter crashes.

The optical remote sensing technology, known as ladar, or laser detection and ranging, predicts the distance from one spot to the next by using pulses from a laser and illuminating the target with light.

It's just one of thousands of examples of technologies possible because of lasers. But, even 20 years ago, without OpTeC and the resulting cluster of skilled laser physicists and engineers, it would have been nearly impossible for Bridger Photonics to survive in Bozeman.

"We can't imagine being here without the university," Roos said.

That's because Bridger Photonics collaborates on projects with MSU and shares equipment on these projects that would otherwise require a large investment. More importantly, more than 80 percent of Bridger Photonics' non-administrative employees are MSU graduates.

"We want to find--and retain--the best people at MSU to work here," Roos said. An MSU grad himself, Roos understands both the challenges and the allure of cultivating a career in Bozeman.

After earning a doctorate in physics from MSU in 2002, Roos moved to Colorado to work for the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado. But, Roos and his wife wanted to raise their family in the Gallatin Valley, so they moved back in 2005.

Soon, Roos and two other MSU graduates, Randy Reibel and Jay Brasseur, submitted three proposals to federal agencies for funding for a new company. Two were granted, and in 2007, Bridger Photonics was born.

In just three years, by 2010, the dynamic company had annual revenues totaling about $2 million. By 2011, it had hired its 17th employee.

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From tracking radio frequencies, to enabling Navy pilots to see farther through a cloud of sand and dust, to locating invasive lake trout in Yellowstone Lake to detecting cancer, technologies developed in Bozeman and at MSU are solving problems around the world.

The examples are numerous:

An MSU-patented technique at NWB Sensors is used to calibrate ultra-compact thermal cameras. Applications range from locating wolves or other animals to advanced military surveillance.

A technology developed by Bridger Photonics and MSU may one day allow law enforcement officers to detect meth labs without putting themselves at risk. At the heart of the sensor is a tiny laser--just the size of a pinky finger--constructed from parts made by Scientific Materials, a division of FLIR Systems, Inc.

And Big Sky Laser Technologies, which is now known as Quantel USA, developed a technology to safely clean artifacts in museums. By using heat and color variations, lasers removed dust and other particles resting on valuable--yet fragile--pieces of art.

These and other examples are likely just the start. As OpTeC has taken off and the laser optics industry in the Gallatin Valley has blossomed, individuals who have been part of it from the very beginning predict that more growth is in store.

"I've just been standing back and watching in awe," Carlsten said. "It's grown so much more than I ever dreamt about in my wildest dreams. I imagine things will continue and get even better." ■


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