New developments in optics and nanotechnology are having a major impact on the defense and aerospace industries, with important implications for the Arizona economy.
The technologies are helping to put aircraft on a diet — reducing their weight and making them more fuel efficient and reliable, industry sources say. And with Arizona hosting important clusters of nano and optics companies and about 1,000 aerospacerelated companies, the research promises to keep those companies competitive in the future.
“There is so much work being done in optics, sensors and lasers, and a lot of it is being driven by the technology needs of the aerospace industry,” said Bob Smith, vice president of advanced technology at Honeywell International.
Smith will be the keynote speaker at a conference Thursday sponsored by the Arizona Technology Council that will bring engineers from each of the industries together to inform them about the latest developments. Called “Light Flight, A Future Convergence of Technologies,” the meeting will be held at Phoenix’s Arizona Science Center.
“We want to highlight that we have world-class thought leaders in these (nano and optics) technologies, and this is a chance to get them to talk with an important legacy industry in Arizona,” said Donna Kent, council chief executive. She said about 75 attendees are expected.
Microelectronics has been a big part of the aerospace business for a long time, and its role continues to grow as mechanical systems sized on a nano scale are being built into tiny silicon chips, Smith said.
An example is the gyroscope, a mechanical device used to track an airplane’s position. Now, microscopic structures are being built into chips that perform the same function at far less weight and space, he said.
Another area of research is atomic clocks, also being miniaturized on silicon chips. A cavity is created within the silicon that is filled with rubidium, a soft metallic element. A laser light measures the clocklike oscillations of atoms in the rubidium to measure time with extreme accuracy, a process that requires very little power.
Such clocks could go into future airliners and also could have applications in communications technology, Smith said.
Nanotechnology also is being applied to such seemingly mundane products as coatings on aircraft engine blades, he said. Research is ongoing to manipulate the properties of the coatings down to the molecular level so they adhere more firmly to the surface of the metal blade and allow the engines to run hotter, he said.
Arizona companies also are developing cutting-edge technologies for spacecraft. An example is QuantTera, a start-up Scottsdale company that has received a U.S. Air Force contract to develop a photonic integrated circuit that uses light instead of electrons to transmit data, which could be used for highspeed laser communication between satellites.
Matt Kim, founder and chief executive of Quant-Tera, who also will speak at the conference, said the forum will help inform aersospace representatives about research under way in Arizona that could help the industry.
“Arizona will benefit from this spirit of open dialogue,” he said.