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20 Years Ago in the Photonics Industry

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From the March 1986 Photonics Spectra

Stanford University researchers began work on an electronic picture-taking device designed to record ultraviolet (UV) and visible light images from the edge of time. The device, the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS), was installed in the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope by shuttle astronauts. J. Gethyn Timothy, an applied physics research professor who directed Stanford's part of the project, said the telescope would allow scientists to observe as far out as 14 billion light years — to the edge of the universe. The spectrograph collected individual photons, mapped them on one of four electronic arrays and timed their arrival. To do this in the UV range, the device used the imaging multianode microchannel array (MAMA) detector system co-invented by Richard Bybee of Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Colo., and Timothy. In the visible spectrum, the spectrograph used CCDs made by Tektronix of Beaverton, Ore.
UPDATE: The STIS produced the first spectrograph of the atmosphere of an extrasolar planet, Osiris. It was installed on Hubble during its second servicing mission in 1997, replacing the High-Resolution Spectrograph and the Faint- Object Spectrograph, and was designed to operate for five years. On August 3, 2004, the STIS "suspended" (was rendered inoperable), NASA said, after suffering a failed command echo check between the control section of the STIS main electronics box and the multianode microchannel array control electronics.

Magnetic resonance imaging was being used by scientists at General Electric Co. and the US Department of Agriculture to study the structure and root function of living plants in search of ways to optimize their growing conditions. The magnetic resonance scanner allowed researchers to "see through" the soil and container to watch plants' roots grow, absorb water, etc., without disturbing them. The scanner was similar to those marketed by GE's Medical Systems Group for producing images of the organs and structures of the head and body. It contained a large, doughnut-shaped superconducting magnet capable of producing a magnetic field of 1.5 Testla -- 30 times the strength of the Earth's natural magnetic field. GE said it was the first known application of magnetic resonance imaging to intact root systems. The scientists used hydrogen imaging to study water transport, root pathology, seed growth and other factors.

The chairman of the National Science Board (NSB) called for increased government support of university research and education. Roland W. Schmitt, then senior vice president for corporate research and development at GE, called for reallocation of about $1 billion in existing federal R&D funds for that purpose. Speaking at a meeting of the New York Science Policy Association, he cited figures that showed a serious decline in the resources available to universities. Schmitt, who was then serving a two-year term as chairman of the NSB, said the federal R&D system was not providing an adequate science and engineering base for international competitiveness.
UPDATE: Schmitt retired in 1988 as senior vice president for science and technology at GE and was a member of GE's Corporate Executive Council. He was president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute from 1988–1993, and he now belongs to or serves on numerous professional and scientific organizations.

Schmitt told, "Looking back at the issues of 20 years ago, I’m impressed with how persistent they are. Today, most members of Congress have a great appreciation for the contributions of academic research to the well-being of our nation, but budgetary pressures are unrelenting and persistent through the years. The scientific community just has to restate its case over and over and over -- often to new people but always, also, to those who have heard it before.

"The international competition of our high-tech industries is even stronger today than 20 years ago as other nations -- even developing ones -- strengthen their own research and technology competence," Schmitt said.

From the February 1986 Photonics Spectra

The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne had packed a laser-based pollution-monitoring system in a van and was driving it around the nation's industrial areas to smoke out air polluters. The system detected pollutants in the parts-per-million range, with modifications planned that would extend that range to parts per billion. It used a laser tuned to the absorption frequencies of a particular pollutant and analyzed the return to determine the amount of the pollutants in the atmosphere. The Swiss environmental agency had used other mobile monitoring devices, but said that none was as sensitive as the laser-based system, the Spectra reported.

UPDATE: Hubert van den Bergh, a professor at Lausanne's Federal Institute of Technology, or EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne), is still involved with the LIDAR (light detection and ranging) pollution monitoring van project, which he began with a German colleague who has since left the institute. Van den Bergh said their much-modernized mobile laser-based air pollution monitoring system is still operating in Switzerland and other European countries, including Greece, France, Italy and Sweden.

The project has expanded to include lighter and more versatile systems that have beam installed around the world to measure ozone in places like Mexico City and northern Finland. A system that also measures water vapor, temperature and aerosols up to the stratosphere is installed at 12,000 feet above sea level in the Swiss Alps at Jungfraujoch, where tourists may take a train to an observation point. EPFL uses a solar observatory at Jungfraujoch that was originally set up for astronomers who are now measuring mostly in Chile, Van den Bergh said. His group has also developed a QLC (quantum cascade laser)-based atmospheric open path measuring system that measures ozone, water vapor and carbon dioxide over a 6-km optical path.

From the January 1986 Photonics Spectra

Two college professors and a fiber optic company president were developing what they believed to be the first liquid crystal fiber optic TV. They envisioned "a low-cost, lightweight TV for consumers that provided a large, sharp picture while hanging on a wall like a large painting." The research team included Robert Marande, then an assistant professor of chemistry at Behrend College of Pennsylvania State University; Alan Jircitano, an assistant professor of chemistry at the college; and Michael Reidinger, president of Tru-Lyte Systems, a fiber optic research company.
UPDATE: Marande, who is now dean of The College of Science and Technology at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, Pa., said, "Displays have come a long way since 1986. One of the major problems in 1986 was the display response time. The transition from one picture to another was fuzzy, because one couldn't make the transition fast enough so the eye saw the intermediate stage."

He said he worked on that issue, and made significant headway, for two years and turned the results over to Tru-Lyte Systems, which funded the research, and that two prototypes were ultimately built. He said he has tried, unsuccesfully, to reach Tru-Lyte many times since 1989; an Internet search for Tru-Lyte Systems was also unsuccessful. Marande continues his work on liquid crystals/polymeric materials, investigating their applications in the medical field. (Jircitano is still with Behrend College.)

10 Years Ago . . .

From the April 1996 Photonics Spectra

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) researchers armed with infrared cameras, laser-docking sensors and radar were designing a system to enable pilots of oil tankers to navigate through a flotilla of sailboards, jet skis, canoes and kayaks in order to dock at foggy San Francisco Bay safely and with their cargo intact. RPI was responsible for developing the Navigation and Piloting System for the DoD-funded SmartBridge Project, part of the Advanced Research Projects Agency's Maritech program. The SmartBridge consortium was headed by Lockheed Martin and included the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Chevron Shipping. The goal was to develop an intelligent bridge that incorporated both expert navigation and piloting systems with advanced sensors originally made for the military. Project members were part of a team that developed an expert piloting system for Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez spill.

From the March 1996 Photonics Spectra

Seed producer Pioneer Hi-Bred International of Iowa was working with Los Alamos National Laboratory on a laser-based gene probe with the aim of developing a better genetic crop. The tool would rapidly identify genetic sequences in particular strains of corn that could potentially increase its productivity. The method used two lasers and genetic probes bound to fluorescent dyes. The probes contained nucleic acids that made up complementary strands of a specific genetic sequence, which the researchers thought might be a key to producing more yield or building better resistance to plant diseases.

A vehicle-mounted dual-band infrared (IR) detection system completed its first road test on the Grass Valley Creek Bridge near Weaverville in Northern California. The technology, dual-band infrared computed tomography, measures temperature differences in materials. It was developed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to detect land mines in the Gulf War, then was enlisted in the battle to shore up America's crumbling highway bridges. It located buried land mines by detecting the heat they emit, and it could also detect early cracking and corrosion to bridge decks by their heat signatures.

The new system improved on traditional IR systems by using two wavelengths, 3 to 5 µm and 8 to 12 µm, which provided more precise measurements. Nonphotonic bridge deck inspection methods involved closing down lanes, dragging a chain over the bridge deck and listening to anomalous sounds. Inspectors also needed to look for rust stains in girders, potholes, cracks or broken pavement. The Livermore method was easier, faster and did not require closing lanes. It also detected faults in their earliest stages, allowing early assessment of damage and cheaper repair. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) funded the research.
UPDATE: Steve Wampler, public information officer at LLNL, said the lab is now working on technology using a micropower impulse radar system to detect problems in bridges and overpasses.

Steven B. Chase, PhD, research program manager for infrastructure with the FWHA's Office of Infrastructure, said, "We have further developed the dual-band infrared imaging system into a precision roadway evaluation system and are developing specialized software for data acqusition and post processing. It is the heart of a specialized infrared evaluation system that our research center uses to evaluate bridge decks and other structures. Nancy DelGrande, the former principal at LLNL, has recently formed her own company to promote and use this technology."

Pilkington unveiled a method of manufacturing mirrors that dispensed with conventional offline silvering techniues and allowed a reflective surface to be applied as the glass itself was manufactured on the float line. The firm said the development was the biggest advance since the invention of the silvered mirror in 1835. Dubbed Pilkington Reflex and developed jointly by Pilkington researchers in the UK and the US, the product gained its reflectivity from a multilayer sandwich of ultrathin silicon and silica coatings, each coating just a few hundred atoms thick, rather than traditional reflective metallic film. The coatings were applied to the glass as it was being manufactured on a float line using chemical vapor deposition.

From the February 1996 Photonics Spectra

Raleigh Industries of Canada Ltd. was the first Canadian bicycle manufacturer to use laser cutting to make the front triangle for the main frame of its bicycles. In 1996, it used a Hobert Laser Products HLP 750 Nd:YAG laser, a Motoman industrial robot with an ERC controller and a Hobart high-speed Z end effector to cut 1600 bicycle frames a day at its Waterloo plant. Benefits of the robotic laser cutting system were cleaner cuts, consistent parts and reduced labor. Raleigh said the equipment is still being used today.

"Just as industry seems on the verge of a surge in applying lasers to production, the US -- which pioneered the practice a quarter-century ago -- is falling behind foreign competitors," reported Howard Rausch, then national correspondent for the Photonics Spectra, in February 1996. "More than 60 percent of the 4000 high-power lasers in operation in automotive manufacture -- the largest application -- are Japanese-operated," Rausch wrote. "Equally striking is that the US has lost its lead in laser technology to Europe. These developments are accompanied by a shift in ownership of the major laser suppliers; few are wholly owned by US companies."

The US had lost its lead in lower-power systems as well, according to the article. In 1994, US suppliers ranked third in sales volume behind competitors in Europe and Japan. These glum data from industrial-laser specialists, along with proposals for improving the situation, were presented to the Committee on Opitcal Science and Engineering, which was organized by the National Research Council in 1995. The committee's goals were to nurture cross-disciplinary technology and to give optics a coherent voice in government and industry.

From the January 1996 Photonics Spectra

A research team at Los Alamos National Laboratory, led by astrophysicist Richard Epstein, found that if an infrared diode laser pumped a 0.25-in. piece of fluoride glass doped with ytterbium ions, the glass cooled, emitting fluorescence that carried away some of the glass atoms' energy. They thought the device would be an excellent cooler for photon detecyots or electronic circuits, such as those in desktop computers.
UPDATE: Epstein is currently the project leader for the Los Alamos Solid-State Optical Refrigerator (LASSOR) program, aimed at developing all-solid-state cryocoolers based on optical refrigeration (also known as anti-Stokes fluorescence), a process in which a solid cools when it absorbs light and then re-emits it at higher frequencies. With luminescent systems such as glasses doped with special absorbing ions (similar to those used for optical fibers), the emitted light can gain energy from thermal vibrations in a solid; as a result, they can be more energetic than the absorbed light.

The team recently used this technique to cool a piece of glass to -65 °C. (The previous lowest temperature achieved for a solid using this method was -37 °C) and is working on a prototype that will operate below 100 K. The technique could have great practical value because of the compact dimensions and absence of vibrations associated with moving parts, and it is well-suited for cooling ground-based and space-borne infrared cameras, gamma-ray spectrometers and electronics, Epstein said.

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