CLIFTON, N.J., May 10, 2004 — A strand of customized optical fiber, seen through a microscope, is heated in a miniature oven and rapidly, though precisely, twisted as it is pulled downward.
The resulting corkscrew, or chiral, microstructure in the core of the fiber is the foundation of Chiral Photonics Inc.’s business. Founded in 1999, the startup’s first products, spiral filaments that work as broadband polarizers, are in the hands of potential customers. But the technology may also enable cheaper and more effective lasers and light filters for optical systems, as well as various fiber-optic sensors.
As co-founder and President Dan Neugroschl explained, the 15,000 helical twists per inch in the core of the fiber (each about 2 microns in width) are also the core of the company’s intellectual property.
The process starts with a specially developed type of fiber that features a rectangular, rather than cylindrical, core. Depending on how tightly the core’s double helix is wound, light can be controlled and modulated in a variety of ways.
Think of how a rubber band looks when you wind it up,” said Neugroschl, whose other startup experience, Schick Technologies Inc., is now a public company.
Such “in-fiber” methods of manipulating light, he added, could displace bigger, more expensive and often less efficient external components. Chiral Photonics’ 10-person team also believes products based on the approach will prove less expensive than existing components such as fiber Bragg gratings, laser light filters and sensors made by irradiating a section of modified fiber with a pattern of bands.
Paras N. Prasad, executive director of the University at Buffalo’s Institute for Lasers, Photonics and Biophotonics, and author of the recently published book, “Nanophotonics,” considers the company’s approach “quite clever and definitely new.”
Some of the challenges to commercializing it, he said, are in preventing the kinds of defects or kinks in the twists that could cause optical loss or inefficiency. Prasad also said that photonic crystals or photonic crystal fibers are developing rapidly and could be competitive alternatives.
In September, the company was awarded a $2 million, three-year Advanced Technology Program grant by the National Institute of Standards and Technology to develop lasers, based on the twisty technique, that are “three times more efficient than current semiconductor lasers at about a fifth of the cost,” according to NIST’s project brief.
The small startup is not alone in the “in-fiber” approach to building photonic components. At Lucent Technologies’ Bell Labs, John A. Rogers, now a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, developed an optical fiber that could be tuned by manipulating a microfluidic channel within it.
Chiral will face competition to build cheaper, better lasers in optical fiber. IPG Photonics Inc. in Oxford, Mass,. and Southampton Photonics Inc. in England are two other companies already selling fiber lasers based on fiber Bragg gratings for scientific and industrial applications. However, Neugroschl believes Chiral’s approach offers cost and performance advantages that will give it traction in the broader laser market.
Last fall, Lucent described a prototype for a “laser-on-a-chip” built at the New Jersey Nanotechnology Consortium. Researchers superimposed a hexagonal photonic crystal pattern on the semiconductor layers of the laser, only 50 microns across, and said they could fabricate large arrays of lasers, each with different performance characteristics.
Neugroschl and his colleagues emphasized that they are determined to turn their technology into products. Early-stage investors include Telemark Group, which also has a stake in MEMS microphone maker Akustica, and several angel investors.
Telemark partner Saul Felman said his firm decided to back Chiral not only because of the cost and performance advantages it promised, but also because “the applications of chiral materials stand to be almost as ubiquitous as lasers themselves.”
Moreover, the target markets were substantial. By 2005, Felman said, the polarizer market is expected to reach $50 million, the fiber-optic sensor sector about $400 million and the 1550 nanometer laser market to reach $600 million.
One clear challenge for the company, noted Felman, will be navigating a consolidating equipment market and figuring out whether to sell products as a manufacturer or licensor.
Some of the applications for their first product, which polarizes an optical signal, include advanced gyroscopes that measure light in rings of fiber to orient guidance systems, and fiber-optic sensors for monitoring voltage in high-power electrical systems. Other sensing applications include tracking temperature and pressure deep in oil wells.
115 Industrial E
Clifton, N.J., 07012
Founded in January 1999, Chiral was conceived by Dan Neugroschl and Jonathan Singer to commercialize technology based on the research of City University of New York’s Azriel Genack and Victor Kopp.
Industries potentially served
Communications: Optical Components
Energy / Earth Sciences: Natural Resource Use / Assessment
Industrial Systems / Controls
Test & Measurement Equipment
Small tech-related products and services
Besides offering microfabrication services, Chiral Photonics develops customized microdevices that take advantage of corkscrew-shaped chiral structures’ properties in order to manipulate light. The company is hoping its efficient, small-scale technology will take market share away from established companies that manufacture fiber Bragg gratings as well as certain types of filters and sensors.
Products under development include:
Dan Neugroschl, co-founder and president
Jonathan Singer, co-founder
Chiral has received at least $2 million in government research grants, including a September 2003 award from NIST ATP to develop a laser with the company’s core technology. The company has also received funding from the Telemark Group and angel investors.
Barriers to market
Chiral Photonics has the potential to address needs in a broad range of industries. However, as with many small tech companies, Chiral is hoping to displace existing providers by making a product more appealing to the market. The company will need to clarify its role as technology licensor or manufacturer, make a strong argument for the size and cost benefits of its technology and reduce the product’s form factor even further for use in lasers.
E-mail: [email protected]
— Research by Gretchen McNeely