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Old Crystal Looks for New Growth

Photonics Spectra
Aug 1999
Robert C. Pini

There is new competition in the alexandrite laser market. Laser Energetics Inc. of Mercerville, N.J., recently bought the alexandrite laser business -- including patents, lasers and materials -- of Allied Signal Inc. of Morristown, developer of the technology.

"We believe there's easily a $30 million annual market in industrial applications," said Robert Battis, Laser Energetics' president and chief executive officer.

Alexandrite isn't exactly a household word, even among laser makers. While HeNe and YAG lasers have been built for scores of commercial applications, alexandrite has remained on the sidelines, entering the niche medical markets of tattoo and hair removal in the past five to seven years.

Commercialization of alexandrite lasers has gone slowly. The design of short-pulse lasers using the material awaited the development of robust optical coatings with high damage thresholds. Few scientists were familiar with the material and willing to work with its demands. So alexandrite advanced incrementally as designers gradually overcame technical problems.
Advocates of the crystal say it produces high peak power and makes a versatile and reliable source. But Brian Pryor, an applications scientist at Light Age Inc. in Somerset, N.J., said, "The drawback with alexandrite is not in getting energy, but in getting energy out of the cavity."

Numerous applications

As designs have become available, several companies have jumped into the business. Light Age was the first to work with the technology, licensing it from Allied Signal in 1983. "Light Age has pioneered all of the applications that exist today," said Donald Heller, the firm's chief executive officer. He believes the technology offers "thousands" of potential applications, including drilling copper and other materials, and could be used in photodynamic therapy, ultraviolet photolithography and medical imaging of soft tissues.

Battis and Heller both promote a range of applications. Although the medical market has been brisk -- Heller estimates about 1000 systems are sold annually just for hair removal -- the good times already may be winding down.

"I don't anticipate that this market will continue to grow as it did earlier," said Joe Rutherford, general manager of Litton Airtron Synoptics in Charlotte, N.C. His company is the only supplier (outside of Lithuania) of the crystal. "I would anticipate less than 10 percent growth per year," and possibly, he added, flat growth as some markets become saturated. He noted that German and Japanese companies are working to enter the medical market.

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