Solely European supply chain for space-qualified Alexandrite laser crystals on the horizon
The European Union wants to use the unique properties of Alexandrite crystals in Earth observation satellites in the future. To make the EU independent of non-European suppliers, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH), Altechna Coatings, and Optomaterials work on a purely European supply chain for space-qualified Alexandrite laser crystals in the EU project GALACTIC. The project partners have made decisive progress towards this goal.
Laser crystals made of Alexandrite have a tunable wavelength between approx. 700 nm and 850 nm. When used in LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) systems in satellites, these crystals make it possible to determine the chlorophyll content of the vegetation. This indicates the vegetation health and thus supplies valuable data, for example, for studies on climate change. In the EU project GALACTIC, the partners work on a purely European supply chain for space-qualified Alexandrite laser crystals and on increasing their Technology Readiness Level (TRL) from TRL 4 to TRL 6.
Special coating design for high laser damage thresholds
Laser systems for space must withstand strong temperature fluctuations as well as ionizing radiation. Therefore, GALACTIC optimizes crystal growth, purification, plasma pretreatment, and coating design to produce suitable Alexandrite crystals.
The Italian partner Optomaterials has succeeded in growing Alexandrite crystals of competitive quality. However, a particularly dense and resistant coating is required to make these crystals suitable for space applications. Altechna Coatings from Lithuania has therefore developed a special coating design based on the ion beam and magnetron sputtering process. In recent tests, the Alexandrite crystals thus achieved a Laser-Induced Damage Threshold (LIDT) approaching top products on the world market.
Laser demonstrator meets LIDAR requirements
The first of two laser demonstrators is already running in the development lab at LZH. "With well over 200 microjoules of pulse energy at a 5 kHz repetition rate, the demonstrator generates laser pulses that are a few nanoseconds short. Thus, in principle, this laser setup can scan large areas per time unit, which is an important prerequisite for the efficient operation of a LIDAR system," reports Dr. Peter Weßels, project coordinator and head of the Solid-State Lasers Group in the LZH Laser Development Department.
In the third year of the project, the partners want to complete the tests and the comparative study, realize the second demonstrator and bring the manufacturing process to market maturity.
In the GALACTIC project, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH), Altechna Coatings UAB, and Optomaterials S.r.l. want to improve the process of crystal growing and post-treatment, develop novel coating concepts and manufacture a laser demonstrator. In that way, an independent, solely European supply chain for Alexandrite laser crystals is to be set up. GALACTIC receives funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under grant agreement No 870427.