Success Story

Less Noise Means Better Chemical Detection

Detecting and measuring even the smallest amounts of chemicals is important for protecting people from environmental toxins, workplace chemical exposures, and other hazards. Laser-based sensing instruments are powerful tools to detect and measure such chemical mixtures in gas form. However, the electrical current needed to drive these laser systems frequently introduces noise or jitter. Even slight fluctuations in the laser’s wavelength and intensity can affect an instrument’s detection ability.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) developed an ultra-low-noise power supply for driving quantum cascade lasers, which are often used in laser-based sensing instruments. The electronic noise reduction from using this new power supply enables up to ten times the detection capability of other power sources, “the lowest current noise density of any commercially available driver,” according to manufacturer Wavelength Electronics.

A PNNL researcher approached Wavelength Electronics, a woman-owned small business in Bozeman, Montana, which develops electronic components for laser systems. Wavelength wanted to see it demonstrated in one of its customer’s laser sensing systems: Aerodyne Research, in Massachusetts. Impressed by the results, Wavelength licensed the technology and began selling commercial prototypes in 2009. Wavelength had never previously worked with a DOE laboratory, and initially was apprehensive about engaging with an organization that it perceived as being large and bureaucratic. But when PNNL responded rapidly to Wavelength’s needs, it took only 10 months to demonstrate and commercialize the technology. Now, Wavelength is supplying low-noise current controllers to government and commercial entities for activities ranging from methane monitoring during fracking to disease detection. This product is generating several hundred thousand dollars in annual sales for Wavelength. PNNL and Wavelength won a Federal Laboratory Consortium Award for Excellence in Technology Transfer for the commercialization in 2011.

Funding to develop the laser system and the low-noise power supply came from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Nuclear Nonproliferation Security Administration. In addition, the research benefited from Laboratory Directed Research and Development internal funds and the technology transfer from PNNL’s Technology Assistance Program, which provided technical expertise for a limited time at no cost to Wavelength.