Norcon Technologies, LLC is commercializing technologies in infrared (IR) polymer optics and photonics. These innovations improve functionality, performance, and economics in fields such as imaging, sensing, spectroscopy, night vision, and high-speed communications. Breakthroughs in high index polymers, which target applications from 0.7 µm to 12 µm, dramatically reduce size, weight, and cost, while enabling optic and photonic solutions previously available only at shorter wavelengths. In addition to owning its own intellectual property, Norcon has also exclusively licensed intellectual property from the University of Arizona. The company is based in Tucson AZ and is privately held.
Beyond the visible spectrum, infrared (IR) radiation is everywhere, transferring heat, revealing temperatures and chemical compositions, transmitting information optically, etc. Yet, IR technologies are barely used relative to their potential. Equipment for night vision, surveillance, and seeing through smoke and other obscurants are cumbersome. High costs limit the adoption of instruments for ensuring food and drug purity, for improving farming efficiencies, or for identifying toxins and explosives quickly and safely. Thermal imagers for firefighting, home safety, and machine monitoring are still not economical. In the field of optical communications, IR solutions for increasing densities and lowering costs of cloud computing hardware are lagging.
These IR technologies are being held back in large part because current materials and fabrication techniques are economically prohibitive. Visible spectrum technologies are far more a part of everyday life, as these are well served by two abundant elements and the production processes developed to exploit them. Silicon is a key ingredient of windows, optical fibers, computer chips etc. Carbon is fundamental to a host of transparent plastics that are ubiquitous. The optical and photonic products made from these elements are lightweight, strong, flexible, and economical. They enable trillion-dollar industries.
Neither silicon nor carbon-based materials, however, have heavy enough atoms to provide useful transparency throughout the IR. We need an element that is, on one hand, heavier, while on the other, economical to obtain and to process. Currently used IR materials – such as germanium and crystalline chalcogenides – have sufficiently heavy atoms, but, unfortunately, are too bulky, brittle, toxic, and difficult to shape. Even worse, they are far too expensive. For example, even though driving accidents are 67% more likely to be fatal at night than during the day, night vision cameras are high-end, rarely purchased options in just luxury cars, largely because the price of the cameras is pushed up exorbitantly by the IR lens they require.
Without favorable economics, the market for IR applications – in imaging, sensing, spectroscopy, and information technologies – will continue to disappoint. The annual market for infrared imaging, for instance, is just a few billion dollars, growing at no more than 10% a year. These values are minute fractions of the size and growth rates for imaging in the visible spectrum. Commercialization of materials and processes that radically lower the cost of IR components are essential for unlocking this potential.
We at Norcon Technologies believe that we can deliver the needed innovations, based on innovations we have pioneered with the chalcogen, sulfur. Sulfur is readily available and inexpensive, as a byproduct of petroleum refining. In addition, it is transparent by itself, or with small amounts of other elements, through much of the IR. One major challenge is how to transform sulfur from its polycrystalline form, which scatters light into an unusable haze, into an easy-to-shape, robust polymer that is haze-free. A second is how to do this transformation economically, at scale.
These challenges are being met by us and our collaboration with the University of Arizona, the world’s preeminent center for optics research. Starting in 2013, UA scientists have achieved results that build confidence in the realization of low-cost IR products. Norcon, which is licensing this innovative technology, is the commercialization agent.
Most notably, the UA scientists have formulated and patented a process to transform polycrystalline sulfur into an amorphous, haze-free polymer that retains IR transparency. Their innovation was to vitrify sulfur with organic comonomers, just as adding sulfur vulcanizes carbon into rubber with resilience. By crosslinking hydrocarbons and sulfur chains, a reddish copolymer, transparent and haze-free in the IR, is formed. We call this class of copolymers "polychalc.” The resulting material exhibits the optical characteristics of chalcogenide glass, while being manufacturable and usable like a polymer. Higher refractive index materials have been recently been achieved by the formation of a unique CHIPs terpolymer that includes selenium atoms as well.
Based on these advances, Norcon scientists have fabricated a variety of different polyhcalc bulk optics. We have formed windows, prisms, lenses, and arbitrary 3-D shapes such as Legos. We then performed a battery of optical and mechanical tests. The optical tests verify strong, haze-free transparency. We also observed refractive index, dispersion, and other parameters with values comparable to chalcogenide glasses. The mechanical tests demonstrate properties similar to the standard optical polymer polymethylmethacrylate (PMMA or plexiglass. Polychalc optics are lightweight, easy to fabricate, and economical. Polychalc is also easy to form and polish, even in complex geometries, to optical-grade requirements.
At the micro and even nanofabrication levels, we have fabricated low loss polychalc microlens arrays and waveguides. Our microlens arrays have the optical performance needed for high performance IR imaging. Moreover, they are inexpensively formed by molding, as opposed to being dependent on expensive diamond turning, as current brittle IR optical materials require.
Our unique polychalc waveguides can successfully couple to optical fibers as well as silicon photonic integrated circuits (PICs). We produced these waveguides using standard semiconductor fabrication tools, as well as with several patent-pending techniques. The United States Air Force awarded us a Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract for us to develop this technology further. The interest of the Air Force is to serve their growing demand for photonic connections on military aircraft.
Our achievements have spurred strong Interest in polychalc for optics and photonics applications. Leaders in automotive night vision, surveillance, security, and chemical detection have provided us their requirements for optical products. Cloud computing companies are seeking partnerships in photonic interconnect technology. Polychalc is clearly generating strong enthusiasm and excitement across these industries.
The leaders of Norcon are highly adept for capitalizing on this opportunity. Norcon’s CTO and founder is one of the world’s leading polymer optics physicists, Dr. Robert A. Norwood. Dr. Norwood’s career has spanned 15 years in industry and 15 years in academia. He is the author of 39 issued US patents and more than 180 papers. Currently, as Professor at the world’s leading optics college at the University of Arizona, he has helped to generate over $100 million in research funding. Many of Norwood’s issued and pending patents are in infrared polymers. Norwood holds a physics PhD from Penn and BS degrees in math and physics from MIT.
Norcon’s CEO is Jay Liebowitz, who has been commercializing infrared imaging and photonic technologies for thirty years. Most recently, he was an owner of, and head of sales for, Princeton Lightwave, which was acquired for its driverless car infrared imaging technology. Previously, he defined the exit strategy for Epitaxx and had key roles in corporate events for Sensors Unlimited and Indigo Systems. Liebowitz’s degrees include a physics BS from MIT and an MBA from Wharton.
Norcon has a unique value proposition in the optics and photonics industry. The value of the IR has long been recognized, but we are the first to be pioneering a solution with the needed optical, material, and economic characteristics. Norcon’s leadership has talent and experience. We possess the technical and management skills for delivering and scaling our IR innovations. We aim to transform the imaging, sensing, spectroscopy, night vision, and cloud computing industries.