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Knoxville company looking to grow with ORNL technology
OAK RIDGE, Tenn.,
March 23, 1998
Sarcon Microsystems sees a bright future in infrared imaging, a technology developed in part at the Department of Energy's (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) that could ultimately save lives on roads, in buildings and in the sky.
The Knoxville startup company is capitalizing on complementary technologies developed by Sarnoff Corporation and ORNL. Sarcon's license gives it sole commercial rights to commercialize a microcantilever-based device for infrared imaging, infrared spectroscopy and remote temperature detection. Microcantilevers, similar to tiny diving boards, are highly sensitive, inexpensive and at the heart of Sarcon's optimism.
"Our vision is to revolutionize infrared sensing," said Don Perrine, Sarcon Microsystems chief executive officer. "Would you be safer driving in the fog or pouring rain at night if you could see clearly? How much money could we save by detecting and fixing overheated power line insulation, transformers or fuses before they actually fail?" .
These are some potential uses for the technology, based on the uncooled microcantilever-based infrared camera. The camera uses mass-produced silicon microcantilever sensors and is considered revolutionary because it doesn't require liquid nitrogen cooling. That means it's smaller and less expensive than conventional infrared devices.
Sarcon's Scott Hunter, vice president of research and development, worked closely with ORNL in developing the technology. He says the operation of the sensor is simple.
"An infrared camera is similar to a home video camcorder, except it sees only heat or infrared radiation," Hunter said. "The heart of the camera consists of a chip, like the ones used in camcorders, with tens of thousands of tiny silicon fingers micro-machined into the surface in a two-dimensional array.
"Each finger is coated with an infrared radiation absorber and a thin metal film. When exposed to the infrared light from a scene through a special lens, each finger bends in proportion to the amount of heat or infrared from the part of the scene that it is observing. The result is images that look like video but show heat variations in objects rather than light variations."
Sarcon, which plans to hire 150 people in a variety of positions by the year 2004, is developing a proprietary product family for heat imaging that Perrine contends is "considerably higher in performance than any other uncooled infrared camera on the market or under development today." The technology also features a fundamental cost and simplicity advantage over competing technologies and should allow Sarcon to penetrate the $2 billion commercial infrared imaging market.
Initially, Sarcon, incorporated in June 1997, is developing and will produce infrared imagers for infrared camera manufacturers of expensive products for high-end security and surveillance, process monitoring and predictive maintenance such as for inspecting motor bearings and transformer and insulation components used to transmit electricity.
"Using infrared cameras, we can provide early detection of failing motors and transformers," said Perrine, who explained that the camera detects the increased heat typically given off by failing transformers and other equipment. Utilities can then schedule repairs and avoid long power interruptions and more costly service calls.
The imagers will plug into manufacturers' products and lead to infrared imaging products similar to camcorders. The three applications licensed by Sarcon use similar infrared microcantilever sensors and signal electronics but with different operating and processing features suitable for each application. With the introduction of lower-cost manufacturing techniques and other cost savings, the cost of the infrared imagers will eventually be low enough to include cameras in trains, trucks and cars, allowing drivers to see other vehicles, people and animals in their path even under adverse conditions.
Sarcon Microsystems is a Sarnoff Corporation technology venture company. Sarnoff is noted for developments such as color television and the new high-definition digital television. Sarnoff, with pending patents in related areas, is considered by Fortune magazine to be one of the top four corporate research and development laboratories in the United States.
Other potential applications of the technology include process monitoring, non-destructive testing, and automobile, marine and air safety devices. Sarcon expects to ship its first commercial products in mid-1999.
The inventors named on the ORNL patent on microcantilever infrared detectors are Thomas Thundat, Eric Wachter and Bruce Warmack, all members of the Life Sciences Division.
ORNL, one of DOE's multiprogram research facilities, is managed by Lockheed Martin Energy Research Corporation.