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8 November 2006


Sofradir building new fab using MBE to double third-generation IR detector production

Sofradir of Veurey-Voroize, near Grenoble, France has received permission to construct a new €9m ($11.5m) factory that will allow it to almost double its production area (from 5500m2 to 9000m2, one third cleanroom) and to mass produce third-generation infrared detectors made from mercury cadmium telluride (HgCdTe, or MCT), starting in late 2007.

Sofradir will upgrade from 2-inch to 4-inch MCT wafers, at the same time becoming the first European manufacturer to produce IR detectors using molecular beam epitaxy and the only company, worldwide, to do so on an industrial scale, it claims. Part of the new facility will be devoted to enhancing customer support by providing demonstration rooms and additional testing facilities. “The new factory will give us more cost-efficient production that runs a secure, environmentally friendly process,” says Yves-Henri Bourgeois, VP Facilities and Quality.

The decision to invest in the new plant follows five years of consecutive growth, increased customer demand, and the successful industrialization of a new technological process, says Sofradir. The company, which was founded in 1986, claims it is ranked number two for deliveries of second- and
third-generation MCT IR detectors worldwide (with 20-25% of the MCT second-generation detector market). Sofradir’s scanning and staring array products cover the infrared spectrum from 1µm to 16µm using MCT, quantum well infrared photodetector (QWIP) or microbolometer technology platforms.

The products are used by defense and security equipment manufacturers in thermal imagers, missile seekers, satellites, and other surveillance, targeting and homing infrared equipment. Customers include the US Army, Thales, Sagem, Selex, Alcatel Alenia Space and the European Space Agency. More than 60% of its products are exported. Sofradir's long- and mid-wave IR detectors have been deployed in battlefield equipment, such as the Storm
Shadow/SCALP EG IR missile seeker, Damocles targeting and NAVFLIR navigation pods, Sophie hand-held goggles, IRIS cameras and SADA II. Together with its subsidiary Ulis (which specializes in uncooled IR detectors), Sofradir generated revenues of $90m in 2005. Sofradir and Ulis currently employ 350 staff. Sofradir aims to maintain its current annual hiring rate of 20-30 staff for the next three years.

The investment comes as the market is looking for larger-format IR detectors, more complex features (such as bi-color, dual-band or laser imaging), and products that are more competitively priced, says Sofradir. “The new factory will bolster our product lines, satisfy customer demand
through increased capacity, and better position us for longer-term growth,” says CEO Philippe Bensussan.

* At the end of October, Sofradir signed a €1m ($1.26m) contract with a worldwide supplier of electro-optic space and defense systems to provide space-qualified, large-format, 30µm pixel pitch shortwave infrared detectors
(SWIR) for hyperspectral application in airborne platforms.

The MCT focal plane array (FPA) to be supplied, Saturn SWIR, is one of the largest monolithic formats on the market (1000x256) and Sofradir is the only manufacturer to have a space-qualified FPA of this size available,
off-the-shelf, the company claims. Saturn will play a key role in the initial testing phase of the customer’s hyperspectral system on aircraft. The contract offers the potential for further collaboration on projects for space applications in the future, claims Sofradir.

Hyperspectral imagery is used to detect chemical and biological weapons, make bomb damage assessment of underground structures and penetrate foliage to detect troops and vehicles. Instruments provide images of an observed scene with a high number of spectral channels (typically more than 100) and with a high spectral resolution (typically 10-15nm) in the considered

Sofradir sees continuing growth of hyperspectral vision in satellites, where various technologies are being tried. Saturn operates in the 0.8– 3µm waveband window and has an operating temperature up to 200 K. It is already
being used in a number of space projects, including the European Space Agency’s Airborne Prism Experiment (Apex) mission.