Popular science fiction fantasy literature and film fans have long read about and watched their heroes using lasers to disable or destroy large enemy targets. Yet, these lasers have taken years longer to develop than predicted, partially because the materials from which the lasers are constructed have been problematic. Manufacturing technology under development by the Air Force and a small business partner will enable new lasing materials made from nanopowders and in turn will make these futuristic lasers possible.
nGimat, Co., a contractor to the Air Force Research Laboratory, has developed materials processes for Yttrium Aluminum Garnet (YAG) powder, the ingredient from which new laser amplifiers are made. This technology will lead to lasers providing near instantaneous target engagement, an extremely low-cost per shot — about a dollar per shot versus up to millions of dollars for a missile — and an extremely deep magazine since the laser’s batteries can be recharged during flight.
nGimat’s original SBIR effort to develop their powder for use in laser applications was administered by the Army, and both Phase I and Phase II efforts were technically successful. In 2015, a major defense contractor expressed strong interest in nGimat’s YAG production capabilities and desires a more robust, scaled-up manufacturing process, so that nGimat can supply its high-quality material for laser applications. However, a small company is unable to internally fund such a large development effort, and the Army was budget constrained. As a result, nGimat approached the Air Force for help.
The Air Force Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) program office is providing an additional $750,000 to nGimat to leverage the company’s past successes and pursue transition of these materials into laser weapon systems and transparent missile domes that could be used by the Air Force.
“The Department of Defense has worked hard to improve polycrystalline YAG for lasers, and this effort by nGimat is the natural next step,” said Dr. Ken Hopkins, the Air Force project engineer. “In addition, it will enable innovative laser designs being pursued by U.S. defense companies.”
nGimat and another contractor have already begun working the joint effort to develop and manufacture the powders. Doing this requires nGimat to implement system engineering improvements and to design and test first-of-its-kind production systems for the nanomaterials, so that consistent purity levels are achieved for the powder.
“With continued development and the installation of dedicated production systems employing the proper controls and system feedbacks, we expect that nGimat will achieve the proper certifications and manufacturing capabilities to ensure reliability, purity and consistency, and product volumes to meet the DoD’s laser development needs.”
In addition to the SBIR funding, this program leverages over $1.6 million in funding and resources from the Air Force Research Laboratory, partners and from local and state incentives for hiring new employees. These funds will help ensure the SBIR Phase II effort successfully transitions its technologies into military or private sectors.
The Air Force SBIR and STTR programs are mission-oriented programs that integrate the needs and requirements of the Air Force through research and development topics that have military and commercial potential. The SBIR program was established by Congress in 1982 to fund research and development (R&D) through small businesses of 500 or fewer employees. The STTR program was established in 1992 to fund cooperative R&D projects with small businesses and non-profit U.S. research institutions, such as universities.
Since 2006, the Commercialization Readiness Program has directly linked Air Force centers to Air Force Research Laboratory technical points of contact to identify and evaluate Air Force needs and innovative solutions. Its primary objective is to accelerate the transition of SBIR/STTR-developed technologies into real-world military and commercial applications.
The Air Force SBIR and STTR programs provide more than $300 million in funding for research and development activities by small businesses annually. With this budget, the Air Force funds research from the early stages of concept development until it transitions to military or commercial use.
Photo: nGimat nanopowder technician Sam Smith transfers precursor solution during development of Yttrium Aluminum Garnet powder.