9 September 2010


New military and sensing applications of mid-IR lasers to grow at 30% annually through 2014

Advances in several new laser technologies are opening new opportunities in the part of the spectrum between telecom lasers and the nascent terahertz (mid-infrared) range, which is currently dominated by applications in materials processing and medical procedures but will be supplemented in the next few years by sizeable opportunities in new military and sensing applications, according to a new report 'Mid-Infrared Lasers 2010' from photonics market research firm Strategies Unlimited.

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.  

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, which currently dominate sales (from 10W lasers using sealed gas tubes to multi-kilowatt lasers using flowing gas blowers, for use in materials processing). Solid-state lasers are also established in medical applications.  

Next to come are high-brightness sources for military applications: infrared countermeasures against heat-seeking missiles, illuminators for thermal imaging, mid-IR beacons etc. Such military applications are key to funding the new mid-infrared technologies while other applications get off the ground, says Strategies Unlimited. Another long-awaited segment is sensing for molecular detection, with many 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, reckons the market research firm. Mid-IR 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. Also, 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 lasers and interband cascade lasers, gallium antimonide (GaSb) diode lasers and optically pumped semiconductor lasers (OPSLs), fiber lasers, solid-state lasers, and compact optical parametric oscillators (OPOs) promise to expand sales into new applications. Other innovations will also help the market, such as inexpensive quartz-enhanced photoacoustic spectroscopy (QEPAs), uncooled focal plane arrays (FPAs), and hollow-core optical fibers, reckons Strategies Unlimited.  

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