Pulse news magazine

Volume 31, December 2020

Getting crystal clear

 BAE Systems’ Material Growth team delivers the hidden gems behind future electro-optical infrared solutions.

BAE Systems’ Material Growth team delivers the hidden gems behind future electro-optical infrared solutions.

“What do you mean you ‘grow crystals’? Do you plant them in the ground?”

 

After 30 years working on the Material Growth team at BAE Systems, this is no longer a shocking question to Peter Schunemann. Even his title, Chief Crystal Growth Scientist, evokes mystery and curiosity for what he could be doing behind the closed doors of the lab.

While Peter and the Material Growth team are not planting crystals in the ground, what is happening behind those lab doors is equally extraordinary. This team is in the business of combining art and science, technical expertise and ingenuity, to achieve unprecedented protection for the warfighter.

To answer the question, yes, they are growing crystals, and other non-linear materials that couldn’t be found in nature. Employing a very particular set of skills and equipment, they are developing advanced materials that will underpin the future of optical electronic warfare systems.

As niche a term as ‘material growth’ may seem, these materials bring a critical advantage to every mission. Modern military systems heavily leverage radio waves, microwaves, and lasers across the electromagnetic spectrum to disrupt and defeat the adversary. In order to optimally exploit the electromagnetic spectrum, systems must be able to operate on all wavelength bands of the spectrum. No band can be left unfilled, as every gap represents an opportunity for the adversary. Hence the emerging need for holistic solutions that cover the full spectrum.

But in the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, lasers have their limitations. “Lasers only operate at a relatively narrow set of wavelengths,” said Scott Setzler, Chief Scientist in the FAST Labs™ R&D organization. “When you need to reach wavelengths that are not naturally emitted from common laser materials, you need non-linear materials that can shift those wavelengths into other bands.”

You read that correctly – crystals and other non-linear materials can shift wavelengths, filling huge gaps in the electromagnetic spectrum and making it extremely difficult for adversaries to counter lasers. Conclusion: These advanced materials will be a critical building block to future electronic systems that enable complete spectrum dominance. The constant generation of new materials – and the best, highest quality materials – will be key to addressing emerging threats in all domains and mission spaces.

For decades, the FAST Labs research and development team at BAE Systems has developed specialized materials and laser sources throughout the EO/IR spectrum. The Material Growth team has been specifically innovating and refining crystal growth processes to position BAE Systems as a world leader in mid-wave/long-wave infrared laser systems. We are one of the only suppliers of these exotic non-linear crystals in the United States – and in some cases, the world.

“We’re able to develop new technologies faster because we’ve been building this component well in advance of the critical need for it,” said Schunemann. “We are able to anticipate needs and quickly respond because we’ve been strategically developing these materials over a really long time – building a unique toolbox of both lasers and infrared crystals.”

FAST Labs team members work in the Material Growth lab.

As they continuously build out that toolbox with never-before-seen materials, this team is focused on customer needs that will emerge decades into the future. But they are keenly aware of what came before them: the strategic focus, continuity of process development, and persistent innovation that was, and always will be, required to maintain position as industry leaders in novel IR crystal growth. That commitment serves as the foundation upon which the team is able to innovate next-generation crystals today.

In the material growth lab, unpredictability is common. Two materials might have the same exact growth technique, chemistry, and crystal structure, but they will still display differences one could have never predicted. The “rules” of engineering can quickly break down in material growth, and the team relies on the ingenuity of its members to solve these fundamental problems.

Taking a multigenerational approach, the Material Growth team is blending decades of experience with fresh eyes, as more tenured scientists partner with newer, more junior team members to continue to mature the art of material growth and stay ahead of the pack.

“Our ‘next-generation’ team members are not only implementing these materials, they are helping material production evolve as technology progresses,” said Schunemann. “They bring new ideas and energy to problems that we’ve been facing in the lab for years, posing solutions we had never thought of before.”

As this team integrates lessons learned with new perspectives and knowledge transfer with idea generation, their diverse structure will propel the continued innovation of advanced materials to build the next generation of EW systems.

By Megan McKeon, Communications, Burlington, Massachusetts