Stratium launches laser, chases investments

17th February 2016

As start-up Stratium releases gas-sensing lasers and relocates to Wales to tap local expertise, Compound Semiconductor asks director, Phil Cornish, about plans.

University of Sheffield spin-off, Stratium, is commercialising quantum cascade laser devices for gas sensing, environmental monitoring and more.

With the pace of compound semiconductor device development gathering momentum in South Wales, University of Sheffield spin-out, Stratium, is one of the first, of no doubt many, to re-locate to the region.

Having just launched its first quantum cascade laser for gas sensing and environmental monitoring applications, the company intends to take advantage of the local compound semiconductor expertise and investment in this region.

Early this year, UK government revealed plans for a £50 million Compound Semiconductor Applications Catapult centre. Meanwhile late last year, Cardiff University, IQE and Welsh government launched the Compound Semiconductor Centre, on the back of the multi-million pound, Cardiff University-led Institute of Compound Semiconductors.

"We're taking advantage of a good situation in terms of these recent announcements," highlights Stratium commercial director, Phil Cornish. "We have every intention of growing our company in Cardiff, so the Catapult is particularly important."

"This centre could open up MOCVD and provide expertise here, and I expect we may be one of many compound semiconductor companies that could use these resources as well as those at the Compound Semiconductor Centre and Cardiff," he adds.

Product launches

Right now, Stratium manufactures short-wavelength QCLs, by depositing III-V antimonides, such as InGaAs/AlAsSb on two inch InP wafers.

Wafer manufacture and epitaxy - both MBE and MOCVD - are carried out in-house with the company also manufacturing 50mW pulsed chip-on-sub-mount QCLs that emit at 2.8, 3.3 and 10 microns to detect ethanol, methane and ammonia.

Operating above room temperature, the QCLs are said to enable the detection and analysis of CH4, HCL, CH2O, CO, CO2, NO and more, in the parts-per-trillion range.

And according to Cornish, these products follow several years of research including careful feedback between design and growth processes as well fabrication and testing.

"Various growth parameters have had to be controlled to achieve the extremely tight tolerances required for material composition and layer thickness," he says. "Additionally, the layer interface quality has to remain very high."

The launch of its company's first QCLs follows seed capital funds of more than £300,000 from UK-based intellectual property business, IP Group and Finance Wales. "This initial investment is helping us to optimise Stratium's existing QCL materials growth, fabrication, test and characterisation capabilities," says Cornish. "And following our next funding round, we may make a strategic decision to acquire our own MBE tool."

Funds are also being used to help deliver Stratium's second product, the 'Eira' Fabry-Perot QCL. This ≥ 20mW, 4–10µm, continuous wave Fabry-Pérot QCL will come in a high-heat-load package, and is scheduled to launch towards the end of Q2, this year. Cornish believes key commercial opportunities will include industrial process monitoring and facilities gas monitoring.

"We can see great potential in gas sensing and monitoring markets so our core business right now is going to be developing these QCL [devices] so we can establish Stratium as a supplier of fully-tested QCL reliable products," asserts Cornish.

Future applications for the start-up's QCLs could include vehicle collision avoidance, breath diagnostics and more. And as Cornish adds: "We will grow and expand the company for sure, and as we move closer to new applications, such as environmental monitoring, we'll also need to collaborate with people from around these fields."

In the meantime, however, Stratium is currently expanding and hoping to recruit an electronics hardware design engineer. And Cornish has no doubts that the rapidly growing compound semiconductor expertise, in the South Wales region, can only fuel his company's future success.

"Within Stratium we have QCL design capability and growth experience and we may acquire an MBE system," says Cornish. "But the Catapult centre, for example, could present us with an opportunity to part-share such a system, removing this capital outlay."

"The costs of an MBE or MOCVD system is of the order of a million pounds and this doesn't include maintenance, clean room and running costs," he adds. "These are all considerable and act as barriers to entry for any company wanting to develop technologies here."

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