New technologies drive growth in mid-infrared lasers

Mountain View, Calif. – Advancements in several new laser technologies are opening new opportunities in the part of the spectrum between telecom lasers and the nascent terahertz range, called the mid-infrared. This range is dominated by applications in laser materials processing and medical procedures, but new military and sensing applications will add sizeable and exciting opportunities in the next few years, says a new Strategies Unlimited report.

The new segments will grow 30% per year, compounded annually through 2014. However, the mid-IR range remains a complex and confusing segment, with competition from other laser and non-laser solutions, and with many companies ripe for acquisition. These are among the findings in a new report, Mid-Infrared Lasers 2010, from Strategies Unlimited, the leader in market research of the photonics industry.

The mid-infrared is best known for being a covert and eye-safe range, for the thermal vibrations of molecules (used in sensing and thermal imaging) and for the cheap photons of high-power CO2 lasers. CO2 lasers today dominate the sales, from 10 W lasers using sealed gas tubes to multi-kilowatt lasers using flowing gas blowers, for use in materials processing application such as cutting and welding. Solid-state lasers are also established in medical device applications.

Next to come are high-brightness sources for military applications: infrared countermeasures against heat-seeking missiles, illuminators for thermal imaging, mid-IR beacons, and so forth. These military applications are key to funding the new mid-infrared technologies while other applications get off the ground. Another long-awaited segment is sensing for molecular detection, with many exciting new opportunities in environmental monitoring, industrial process controls, security standoff detection of hazardous chemicals, and new breathalyzer instruments for medical diagnostics. Other sensor applications include mid-infrared range-finding and Doppler scatterometry.

However, mid-infrared laser suppliers face many unique challenges. Mid-infrared components are expensive because of requirements for exotic materials and coatings, cryogenic cooling, and low manufacturing volumes. Lasers have been bulky and the output power of compact laser solutions has been low. And, the new technologies face challenges from other laser and non-laser technologies, such as Raman spectroscopy, near-infrared laser and LED sources, lamps, and non-optical approaches.

Now, new solutions in quantum cascade and interband cascade lasers, GaSb diode lasers and OPSLs, fiber lasers, solid-state lasers, and compact OPOs promise to expand sales into new applications. Other innovations will also help the market, such as inexpensive QEPAs, uncooled focal plane arrays, and hollow-core optical fibers.

The report lists over 50 companies offering lasers in the mid-IR range, spanning the technologies listed above, as well as legacy technologies. Well more than half of the companies are headquartered in North America. With such a wide range of suppliers and applications, the market is highly fragmented, and there is no overall leader. Some industries prefer to bring differentiating technology in-house, making several laser suppliers targets for acquisition.

Mid-Infrared Lasers is the latest in a series of reports on lasers for industrial and consumer applications from Strategies Unlimited, specialists in market research and strategic consulting directed at photonics systems and components. Other recent reports by Strategies Unlimited cover: lasers for materials processing, ultrafast lasers, LEDs, LED lighting systems, optical molecular imaging, OCT, and image sensors. The company is a research unit of PennWell Corp., a global media and information company. PennWell’s many brands include Industrial Laser Solutions.

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