Startup Promises Grate Lasers

A laser machining company and a Russian technical institute have spawned a startup making high-powered lasers

May 4, 2001

4 Min Read
Startup Promises Grate Lasers

A laser machining company and a Russian technical institute have spawned a startup that will make high-powered pumps and widely tunable lasers.

Called Infinite Photonics Inc. (no Website), the startup came to light earlier this week, when it announced the appointment of Jeff Bullington as its president (see Infinite Photonics Names President).

The startup's technology has been under development for five years. In the mid 1990s, Laser Fare Inc., a manufacturer of laser-machined parts and a subsidiary of the Infinite Group Inc., got a contract with the U.S. Airforce to develop a type of high-powered laser called a grating-coupled surface-emitting laser (GCSEL). After a few false starts, the company struck a deal with the Ioffe Technical Institute in Russia to make the lasers.

Bullington says that he was the one who, in his previous role as a consultant to Laser Fare, spotted the match between the laser technology and the market opportunity for high-powered lasers for optical pumping of erbium-doped fiber amplifiers (EDFAs) and, more recently, for Raman systems.

Bullington was previously a founder of two other high-tech startups: Krysalis Corp., which was sold to National Semiconductor Corp. and Radiant Technologies Inc., which makes ferroelectric materials.

One of the key selling points of GCSELs -- but not the only one -- is their potential to produce very high optical powers. "Edge-emitting lasers have a fairly large gain volume, and are capable of producing more power than the facets can actually transmit," says Bullington. "On the other hand, VCSELs [vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers] have a large aperture, but they have a tiny gain volume. With a grating-coupled laser you get the best of both worlds: a large aperture and a large gain volume."

The basic structure of a grating-coupled laser is the same as a simple laser bar, with light bouncing back and forth horizontally between the two reflective ends of a piece of semiconductor. The light gets coupled from the horizontal to the vertical plane by a grating that's etched into the top surface of the laser -- hence the name. It's not a brand new technology: This type of laser has been knocking around in research labs for a long time, notes Bullington.

Since light comes out of the top rather than the side, the GCSELs can be tested on-chip, which saves money because it's possible to weed out dud devices at an early stage of the manufacturing process. "Right now we're doing bar-level testing where we slice out an entire row, but in six months time we'll be able to do wafer-level tests," says Bullington.

Infinite Photonics has got prototype laser chips that emit 750 to 1000 milliwatts at 980 nanometers (a wavelength that's suitable for pumping EDFAs). It's also working on a tunable laser. So far it's made a proof-of-principle prototype at 980nm, which can tune over a range of 132nm by moving an external mirror above the grating.

There's plenty of competition in the pump laser space, from the likes of monsters such as JDS Uniphase Inc. (Nasdaq: JDSU; Toronto: JDU) and nimble startups like Novalux Inc. (see Novalux Details Laser Advance) and Princeton Lightwave Inc. (see Princeton Lightwave 'Raises the Bar').

But Bullington is bullish about the future. He reckons that with the customer base it's currently talking to, Infinite Photonics will be generating $200 million to $300 million per year in revenues three years from now.

One reason for optimism is that there's a global shortage of laser chips, he says. "One of the customers we've been talking to says that there's a lead time of one year [for lasers], from placing an order to taking delivery of the product."

The startup plans to make its chips in a foundry to start with, so it can get to market quicker. "It's going to take us 18 months to get our own facility up and running, and our customers can't afford to wait that long," says Bullington. In fact, he adds, lasers are in such short supply that the customers are prepared to pay for product development.

Right now, the company has four employees who have moved over from Laser Fare and is in the process of hiring people from Russia to help transfer the technology from the Ioffe Institute. It has seed funding from The Infinite Group, and is working on a private placement that will close in the next month or so.

— Pauline Rigby, senior editor, Light Reading

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