Honors Gallery

2011 Low noise quantum cascade laser current controller Far West

Award: Excellence in Technology Transfer

Year: 2011

Award Type:

Region: Far West

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL)

Developed over several years, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s (PNNL) Low Noise Quantum Cascade Laser Current Controller is a laser power source that when used in laser-based gas sensors enables scientists to more accurately detect smaller levels of trace gases than would otherwise be possible. It has the lowest noise of any other controller known and is designed specifically for use with quantum cascade lasers (QCLs) that emit light in a wavelength region that many trace gases strongly absorb. When QCL-based sensors are powered with devices such as the PNNL Controller, their sensitivity increases, allowing the analysis of a wider range of gases or chemicals.

After obtaining several patents and trying a number of approaches to transfer the PNNL Controller to commercial application, PNNL scientist Dr. Matthew Taubman approached Wavelength Electronics, Inc. (WEI), a small company that develops controllers and related components for lasers.

The first approach to assisting WEI with evaluating the controller was for PNNL to loan WEI one of its controllers to test. However, WEI did not have the capability to measure current noise at very low levels. Despite this setback, the PNNL team did not give up. WEI applied for and obtained funding from PNNL’s Technology Assistance Program (TAP) for Dr. Taubman to characterize the relative noise performance of WEI’s existing laser diode power supplies and suggest noise reduction strategies. In parallel, PNNL and WEI initiated licensing negotiations for the PNNL Controller’s design. After Dr. Taubman was able to show the superior low-noise characteristics of the PNNL Controller, WEI requested a final evaluation in one of its customer’s QCL systems. The PNNL team traveled to Billerica, Mass., and the Controller’s performance was evaluated in Aerodyne Research’s QCL system. The success of this evaluation convinced WEI to move forward with commercialization.

In October 2009, WEI’s CEO and entire engineering staff visited PNNL to gain a detailed understanding of the PNNL Controller’s design. During this visit, the license agreement was executed. In November, Aerodyne ordered seven prototypes of the PNNL Controller from WEI.