News Feature | March 23, 2022

Bright Ideas — Congressional Researchers Question U.S. Pursuit Of Hypersonic Weapons, ISS To Test Space 'Nodes' For Quantum Communications

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By Abby Proch, former editor


Congress has pledged roughly $250 million toward the pursuit of hypersonic weapons, but some congressional researchers are wondering if the funds — and the overall effort — are warranted. Last year, we reviewed some of the U.S. military’s emerging technologies alongside those of Russia and China, with hypersonic boost glide weapons being one of them. Now, the looming question from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) report is whether hypersonic defense systems are technologically mature enough or the threat level is high enough to justify the current funding level.

Another highly contested space? Solar cell efficiency. Each passing year brings with it a claim to world record efficiency rates, and this time the reported champion is Q CELLS and Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin. The energy solutions provider and research lab have together reached a reported 28.7% tandem cell efficiency using the company’s Q.ANTUM-based silicon bottom cell paired with a perovskite-based cell on top. While many efficiency successes are contained to the lab, this world-record is reported to be achievable “using an industry feasible and cost-efficient bottom cell structure.”

Also ready for its time in the “real world” of sorts is SEAQUE, a quantum technology that will soon be installed on the exterior of the International Space Station in the hopes that it will become a successful building block of quantum communications. SEAQUE, short for Space Entanglement and Annealing QUantum Experiment, comprises space “nodes” that will be tested not only for their abilities to produce and detect pairs of entangled photons but also for their ability to self-heal in the presence of radiation.  

Speaking of space, the James Webb Space Telescope has reached the fine phasing stage, meaning it’s successfully produced an image of a single star — and somewhat unexpectedly, nearby galaxies — from its NIRCam detector, which is now fully aligned with the telescope’s optical system. The latest image outperformed model expectations and represents the “very first diffraction-limited images that came out of the Webb telescope” and the “highest resolution infrared images taken from space… ever,” according to Scott Acton, a NASA wavefront sensing and controls scientist.

In funding news, the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics got a slight boost in federal funding with a promise of $83 million the 2022. Including the $1 million increase over last fiscal year, the LLE will be able to support more than 900 scientists, engineers, technicians and staff who support the lab’s OMEGA laser programs that aim to support “science-based stewardship of the nation’s nuclear weapon stockpile.” The OMEGA EP laser is one of the world’s most powerful high-energy, high-intensity lasers.

LASEA has also announced a 10 million euro ($11 million) private investment that will allow it to expand its laser production system installations and encourage innovation in new optical components. LASEA develops and manufactures laser micromachining machines for what it calls an exclusive crop of clients that includes the “top three Swiss watchmakers, glasses manufacturers, the pharmaceutical and medical industry.” LASEA has over 1,500 laser micromachining systems deployed worldwide.

In other business news, a German optics consortium is set to receive 50 million euro to fund its PhoQuant project that aims to develop a quantum computer chip testing and demonstration system. Leader of the consortium and subsidiary of Trumpf, Q.ANT says the team is planning to produce an initial prototype within two-and-a-half years and a quantum computer chip capable of large-scale calculations within five years. Q.ANTS’s method for fabricating powerful quantum computer chips involves using a specialized optical channels on silicon chips to “transport, control and monitor quanta with virtually zero loss, even at room temperature.”

Finally, in mergers and acquisitions, Zebra Technologies will acquire its third company in the machine vision space in the past year when it pens a $875 million to assume ownership of Matrox Imaging. Matrox Imaging, a division of Matrox Electronics Systems Ltd., is said to bolster the company’s existing fixed industrial scanning and machine vision portfolio, according to the report. Matrox Imaging has specialized in “platform-independent software, software development kits, smart cameras, 3D sensors, vision controllers” and more to support the inspection and vision systems in factory automation, electronics and pharmaceutical packaging, and semiconductor inspection, among others. Zebra had previously acquired Adaptive Vision and Fetch Robotics.

Fiber optics measurement and monitoring system company Luna Innovations recently agreed to a 20 million euro ($23 million) deal to acquire LIOS Sensing, a division of NKT Photonics. At the same time, Luna Innovations also sold off its Luna Labs division (retaining a less than 5% equity ownership) for around $21 million as it strengthens its focus on “purely fiber-oriented adventures.”