Research and Development: SBIR Programs

In the Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program, the US Government, through a variety of agencies, funds companies to develop products or processes that not only meet Government needs but also have commercial potential. Funding is done in a highly competitive, two-step process for an initial Phase I feasibility study and a Phase II demonstration program. In a so-called Phase III follow-on the companies commercialize the results of the Government-sponsored effort, that is, bring the product or process to the commercial market.

Q-Peak, when it operated as the Research Division of Schwartz Electro-Optics (SEO), had a long and successful history of translating the results of SBIR-funded research into either products or new business areas. Until 1993, products developed under SBIR funding at the Research Division were transitioned into production at different Divisions of SEO in Orlando. After 1993, the emphasis shifted more to having products manufactured and sold directly by the Research Division.

For SEO as a whole, significant product sales, beginning in 1989, totaled over $22 million. As a recognition of the success that SEO had with the SBIR program, the company and CEO, William Schwartz, were granted a Tibbets Award in 1996, the first year of the awards. Named for the person universally acknowledged as father of the SBIR program - Roland Tibbetts - these prestigious, national awards are made annually to those small firms, individuals, organizations and projects judged to exemplify the best in SBIR achievement, the different types of support and related activities.

Q-Peak, with its new parent company, Physical Sciences Inc., continues to maintain a strong tradition of success with the SBIR program. Physical Sciences was granted a Tibbetts Award as well, in 2006. Below, we highlight the results of some completed SBIR programs. We also include links to papers associated with other SBIR programs from the same organization.

Air Force: A Compact Solid-State Laser Projector using a RGB OPO-based Source

Original Topic: AF98-169, Solid State Laser Projector (SSLP)
Phase II Contract Number:F33615-99-C-6009

In this project we developed a laser-based red-green-blue (RGB) projection system. The Air Force interest, supported through an SBIR topic formulated by Dr. Darrell G. Hopper from the Air Force Research Laboratory, is in advanced simulators and "data walls." A laser-based projector would provide a combination of higher brightness and higher resolution not possible with conventional, lamp- or CRT-based projectors. The basic technology is covered by U.S. Patent #5740190. The RGB source began with a diode-pumped, Q-switched Nd:YLF 1047-nm, multiple-pass slab laser oscillator producing 25 W of average power. We amplified this to a 50-W level with a single multi-pass slab amplifier and converted it to 30 W of 523.5-nm radiation using a non-critically phase matched lithium triborate crystal. We used the 523.5-nm radiation to pump a lithium triborate ring optical parametric oscillator to produce wavelengths of 1256 and 898 nm. We then used a second lithium triborate crystal within the optical parametric oscillator to intracavity frequency double the 1256 nm radiation, to generate 6 W of red power at 628 nm. With an extracavity configuration, we frequency doubled the 899-nm light, using a series of walkoff-compensated crystals, to produce ~4 W 449-nm of blue radiation. We used the 6 W of residual 524-nm radiation from the optical parametric oscillator as the source of green light. A schematic of the system appears below.

Schematic of RBG OPO

The combined D65-balanced white light luminosity generated by our OPO-based RGB source was about 4000 lumens. The 628-, 524-, and 449- radiation were then coupled into multimode fibers and the light was delivered into a modified JVC digital projector to complete the system. The picture below shows the RGB OPO source mounted in a relay-rack chassis.

Picture of RBG OPO

The Phase II program, enhanced by a follow-on Phase III corporate investment, has led to the formation of a venture-capital-funded spin-out company Laser Light Engines which is is creating a broad new category of Solid State Lighting based on the RGB OPO technology for a variety of applications, including advanced projection systems.

Here are some additional technical papers on the subject:

Papers from other Air Force SBIR programs

Army: Compact Lightweight, Femtosecond Laser for LIBS

Original Topic: A06-062, Compact, Lightweight Ultrafast Laser Source for Field Sensors
Phase II Contract Number: W911QX-08-C-0014

Techniques such as Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS) have recently demonstrated the ability to detect and discriminate chemical, biological, and explosives hazards both in close-contact and standoff modes. Currently the LIBS devices that have been and are being developed for field use are based on nanosecond lasers and have certain limitations that can be overcome through the use of femtosecond lasers. However, to date, femtosecond lasers have been too large, bulky, delicate, and expensive to be considered as viable candidates for field use. This SBIR topic, originated by Dr. Andrzej Miziolek from the Army Research Laboratory, aimed to develop a new and innovative femtosecond laser source to bring femto-LIBS into field use.

Our technical approach to this challenging program was to develop a compact, high-power, diode-pumped, Yb:doped femtosecond oscillator- regenerative amplifier laser system. A schematic of the system design appears below.

Schematic of femtosecond source for LIBS

In the program:

  1. We determined the optimal laser material choice for both diode-pumped oscillator and regenerative amplifier in order to achieve the targeted output specifications.
  2. We built and characterized the performance of a compact, ruggedized diode-pumped Yb:doped femtosecond oscillator.
  3. We built and characterized the performance of diode-pumped, Yb:doped regenerative amplifier.
  4. We conducted amplification experiments to evaluate the efficiency of regenerative amplification. We designed and built a novel, compact, pulse stretcher/compressor based on a chirped volume Bragg grating from Optigrate to achieve a sub-ps pulse duration from the amplifier output. We conducted spectral-temporal characterization of the output of the Yb:doped laser system.
  5. We integrated the femtosecond oscillator, regenerative amplifier and stretcher/compressor pair into a compact and robust configuration as a stand-alone, ultrafast, high-power, compact laser source.
  6. We conducted a set of laboratory experiments to demonstrate the applicability of the laser system for LIBS.

Overall, the Phase II effort was successful and resulted in the construction of a compact, 1.8 mJ pulse energy, 600 fs oscillator-regenerative amplifier Yb:doped laser system suitable for LIBS. The high peak power of the system (3 GW) should make it suitable for a variety of applications beyond LIBS.

The photograph below shows the assembled laser head.

Schematic of RBG OPO

More details on the system are in the Products: New Technologies page on this site. Here are some additional technical papers on the subject:

Papers from other Army SBIR programs

NASA: Passively Q-switched Microchip Laser Development

Original Topic: 1996 13.06 Lidar Systems for Ranging and Altimetry - diode-pumped, Q-switched Nd microlasers
Phase II Contract Number: NAS5-98060

Some airborne/spaceborne and ground-based lidar systems used in the ranging and altimetry modes of operation are required to generate short (less than 500 ps) laser pulses in diffraction-limited-beams with up to 100 microjoule energies while constrained to limited power, weight and volume budgets. These laser sources must be efficient, reliable and rugged. This SBIR topic, originated by Dr. John J. Degnan, then at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, was of particular importance to the SLR2000 program, an autonomous and eyesafe photon-counting Satellite Laser Ranging (SLR) station. The system has an expected single shot range precision of about one centimeter and a normal point precision better than 3 mm, sensing artificial satellites at altitudes up to 20,000 Km.

In the performance of the effort, we developed, designed and constructed a 1-W-diode end-pumped, Cr:YAG passively Q-switched Nd:YAG microchip laser that generated 3.2-microjoule, 400-ps pulses at a 2 kHz rate. We amplified the microlaser pulses to as high as 335-microjoules of energy using a cw, side-diode-pumped Nd:YVO4 gain module based on our multiple-pass slab design. We then used the 1064-nm output beam for nonlinear conversion to second, third and fourth harmonics, with average output powers of 400 mW, 240 mW and 66 mW, respectively. An optical schematic of the system appears below:

Schematic of NASA SLR2000 transmitter

We also presented experimental data and theoretical modeling of passively Q-switched microlasers that we believe, for the first time, clearly demonstrated the influence of pump-light induced bleaching of the saturable absorber on the microlaser performance leading to longer pulses.

Finally, we delivered a breadboard laser system to NASA Goddard which produced 200-microjoule-energy, ~ 400 ps-wide pulses at a 532-nm wavelength, with pulse repetition rate of 2 kHz and near-diffraction-limited beam quality. A photograph of the Phase II system (black box on right) installed as a transmitter at NASA Goddard appears below. The system demonstrated successful ranging to satellites.

Photograph of installed NASA SLR2000 transmitter

The long-term goal of the SLR2000 program is to construct a number of autonomous, unmanned stations for satellite ranging. Here, having a computer-controlled laser system, and no water cooling, would be desirable features. The laser would be expected to operate with a high duty cycle, 24 hours per day and continuously for up to 45 minutes at a time during clear weather. Short turnoff times ranging from tens of seconds to several tens of minutes would be possible between satellite passes. In a follow-on Phase III effort funded by NASA (Contract NAS5-02028) we developed a similar system in general design to the Phase II laser, but with an air-cooled, multi-pass slab amplifier, based on the use of thermoelectric chillers to maintain the pump diode lasers at the appropriate temperature. Operation of the laser elecronics was possible through RS-232-based, computer control. The system generated 532-nm, 250-microjoule, 290-ps-duration pulses at a 2-kHz rate. A photograph of the air-cooled transmitter (cover off), delivered to NASA Goddard, appears below. The system makes extensive use of stable, flexure mirror mounts to provide long-term stability.

Photograph of Phase III, air-cooled NASA SLR2000 transmitter

Here are some additional technical papers on the subject:

Papers from other NASA SBIR programs

DoE: High-Pulse-Rate Sources for Active Imaging Systems

Original Topic: 2003 2.a Support Technologies for Active Imaging Systems
Phase II Grant Number: DE-FG02-04ER84049

For applications in active imaging systems, DoE requested the development of a compact, portable seed laser with short (less than 1 nanosecond) pulses, a narrow (less than 1 nanometer) spectral bandwidth, and an intermediate pulse repetition rate that is adjustable between 100 kHz and 1 MHz or wider. Pulse energy was to be 10 nanoJoules or higher, with a high pulse contrast ratio and operation in the 1000-1500-nm range. Lightweight, low power consumption, and small size (0.5 cubic feet or less for the laser, and a similar size for the associated power supplies/electronics) were also very important. The DoE also requested compact power amplifiers for use with the oscillators described above, with an output pulse energy of 10 microjoules or higher, also in a compact package. The topic was developed by Dr. Cheng Ho and David C. Thompson at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Our program developed both the seed oscillator, a power amplifier and a second-harmonic-generator and packaged them together in one system.

For the seed source, if we exclude various solutions based on diode and fiber lasers, the generation of less than 1 ns pulses at repetition rates greater than 100 kHz with a bulk solid state laser can be accomplished with passively Q-switched oscillators only, in order to keep the cavity length short. Working with the MIT Research Laboratory for Electronics, we developed a semiconductor saturable absorber with a characteristic relaxation time in the 0.1-1 ns range. We used the high-gain laser crystal Nd:YVO4 in the oscillator. For the amplifier, we employed our multiple-pass slab design with a Nd:YVO4 laser crystal, in a double-pass configuration.

A schematic of the optical design appears below, along with a graph plotting pulse rate and average power vs. pump power for the seed oscillator, which generated 0.9-ns-duration pulses at all the pulse rates for the data shown. By changing the parameters of the saturable absorber we could acheive a variety of pulsewidths and maximum pulse rates, and were able to operate as high as a 2-MHz rate with 6-ns pulses.

Schematic of High-Pulse-Rate Source Plot data for oscillator pulsewidth and average

We developed a compact package for the laser head, shown below in a cutaway drawing and in a photograph of the actual head.

Cutaway drawing of laser head Photograph of laser head

The system, operating at a 200-kHz rate with 0.9-ns pulses, generated as much as 12 W of average power at 1064 nm, and 7.5 W of 532-nm average power. The beam quality of the ouput was close to diffraction-limited. We delivered the system to Los Alamos National Laboratory for eventual integration into active-imaging systems.

Papers from other DoE SBIR programs

At present we have several other DoE Phase II SBIR programs in progress and we will report on the results when appropriate

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