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 ship,” Sossen says, that could be used to disable enemy UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) or even blow up incoming rockets or artillery shells.

That’s still more than five years away, though. In the nearer term, TeraDiode is looking to deploy the world’s most advanced deterrent to heat-seeking missiles, Sossen says. Here’s how it works. The company’s laser system could be mounted on the back of a fighter plane’s fuselage. If a missile is launched at the plane, the laser would deliver a dazzling enough burst of infrared light to confuse the seeker head so it can’t home in on the target. (It might also destroy the missile, but that presumably would require a more powerful beam.) Field testing for this airborne system could begin in about a year, Sossen says, with full deployment in three to five years, if all goes well.

There are plenty of other near-term military applications as well, he says—things like illuminating targets (which is typically done so they can be photographed or shot at) from great distances via a laser that is handheld or mounted on a jeep, helicopter, or UAV.

So far, the company’s revenues have come from its defense work, Sossen says. But it is planning to have commercial sales later this year, in less, uh, flashy areas such as manufacturing (the aforementioned cutting and welding). TeraDiode might have lofty goals, but being a startup means hustling for money anywhere it can be found—and doing whatever it takes to win customers. After all, the firm is competing with lots of big defense contractors and established industrial laser makers worldwide.

“In a small-company environment, everybody has to be willing to do everything all the time,” Sossen says.

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