Built on Quantum Mechanics, Intraband Eyes Missile Defense for Laser

After meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, President Donald Trump wrote in a tweet that “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea” to the U.S.

Other elected leaders disagree. “Saying it doesn’t make it so,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, told The New York Times this week. “North Korea still has nuclear weapons.”

Any changes North Korea makes to its nuclear weapons program notwithstanding, missiles and other weapons used to wage war remain at the disposal of armed forces and militant groups across the globe.

Technologists in the U.S. and elsewhere continue to build the next generation of defense systems, such as laser-based technologies being advanced by Intraband. The Madison, WI-based startup is developing equipment designed to allow an aircraft to use lasers to “blind” missiles by preventing them from using heat-seeking sensors or thermal imagers to lock on to the aircraft, says Rob Marsland, president of Intraband.

The laser devices the startup is seeking to commercialize could also have applications for businesses that manufacture sensors and plastics, as well as companies that develop medical diagnostic devices, Marsland says.

“Breath analysis has been proposed for early detection of many diseases,” he says. “Our lasers can be used to illuminate a gas—human breath for example—from a distance or in a sample cell, to determine its composition.”

Marsland joined Intraband and the company’s three co-founders last September. It was started in 2007 by two University of Wisconsin-Madison engineering professors—Dan Botez and Luke Mawst—along with their former grad student, Tom Earles. It’s not the trio’s first business together. Botez, Earles, and Mawst were also part of the founding team of Alfalight, another Madison-based startup focused on laser technology. Alfalight was acquired in 2016 (more on that below).

After a decade of development work, the Intraband team announced a licensing agreement with UW-Madison’s technology transfer office earlier this week. Company leaders say Intraband’s agreement with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation marks a key checkpoint on the road to potentially commercializing the science.

Intraband plans to enlist a contract manufacturer to produce its devices, rather than building and owning its own factory, Marsland says.

“This year is all about finalizing our manufacturing relationship, so that we have a proven path for volume manufacturing,” he says, adding that Intraband is on track to ship its first device by the end of the year. The startup hasn’t given any indication whether its first customer or customers are likely to be defense contractors, or belong to another industry.

However impactful the application of the laser is, the science behind it—a use of deep quantum mechanics—is as equally important an innovation.

Making a laser involves finding the right wavelength to emit light, says Marsland. Light is emitted at wavelengths beyond the light we see; visible light is only one part of the electromagnetric spectrum, and humans can broadly see light with wavelengths at 380 nanometers to about 700 nanometers. (There are a billion nanometers in one meter.)

Lasers can be built at various points along the spectrum, even at shorter and longer wavelengths that aren’t visible to humans. That includes … Next Page »

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