TeraDiode, MIT Lincoln Lab Spinoff, Trying to Create the Future of Laser Weapons & Welding

If laser weapons and tools ever become mainstream, it might be because of a quiet little company called TeraDiode.

Sure, there are lots of more imminent (and perhaps more practical) applications for the Littleton, MA-based laser firm—welding, cutting metal, illuminating targets, and so forth—but blowing stuff up is what a laser was meant to do. At least if you grew up watching Star Trek phaser battles, Star Wars dogfights, and other forms of popular but admittedly dorky sci-fi entertainment.

TeraDiode, a two-year-old spinout from MIT Lincoln Laboratory, is commercializing a new kind of laser system, using what’s called a direct-diode laser, that it says is brighter, more powerful, and more focused than its predecessors. The technology is based on semiconductor lasers (which are electrically rather than chemically driven) plus a sophisticated optical system to manipulate individual beams to form a single output beam—a technique known as wavelength beam combining.

The 11-person company raised $4 million in a Series A round led by Stata Venture Partners in the fall of 2009, and is currently closing a second financing round from VCs and strategic investors, says founder and CEO David Sossen. The company has also landed some $3 million in U.S. defense contracts, he says.

Sossen, a veteran of Arthur D. Little and other firms, was a founding investor in TeraDiode, together with Fred Leonberger, a photonics expert from optical-tech firm JDSU. The startup’s laser technology, and its subsequent business development, is the handiwork of a couple of former Lincoln Lab scientists, Bien Chann and Robin Huang (no relation to the author), who both left to co-found the company in late 2009.

Lasers have been used in industrial applications for some 40 years. And the U.S. military has used lasers for decades, but in limited ways, because the devices tend to be bulky, inefficient (not enough power output), and prone to breakdown. To create a “directed energy weapon,” for example, a conventional chemical-based laser would need to be about the size of a building.

Until now, the limiting factors for laser diodes have been power output and beam quality. “We’ve broken through that barrier,” Sossen says, adding that his company’s relatively compact lasers (which for commercial uses are a bit bigger than a breadbox but smaller than competing devices) can output between several hundred and several thousand watts, and in principle up to 100 kilowatts (with a bigger laser)—enough power to do some real damage. And at different wavelengths, depending on the application.

TeraDiode envisions selling lasers “compact enough to be deployable on a tank or … Next Page »

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