Photek is one of only three or four companies worldwide making vacuum-based imaging devices. The vacuum technology it relies on is a relatively old technology, dating from the 1930s, which has been superseded by more modern equivalents. But, in the niche areas where Photek operates, it remains state-of-the-art in terms of performance, even if expensive.
One of Photek customers’ key concerns was the relatively short lifespan of the product, which degrades with exposure to light, risking the closure of former markets for Photek. Another consideration was to improve detection efficiency, and – if possible – reduce production costs.
The main aim of Photek’s KTP with the University of Liverpool was to introduce a coating treatment capability for Microchannel Plates (MCPs), a key component in nearly all of its products. Photek found that some of its key markets, including particle physics facilities like CERN, were on the verge of dismissing its product, because of the relatively short life span of the MCPs under the operating conditions of its chambers. Improving its lifetime was one of the key aspects of improving overall device performance.
While Photek was aware of the Atomic Layer Deposition (ALD) process, it didn’t have the expertise in house to create its own systems and processes. Innovation is essential in this market to remain competitive and to stay ahead of solid state technology, which is superseeding vacuum technology.
Photek bought ALD equipment at the start of the project, using the university’s expertise to develop processes, learn about the practical elements of its use, and to develop monitoring processes for quality control. Working alongside the School of Engineering, with assistance from the Knowledge Centre for Materials Chemistry (KCMC), the Photek team acquired the ability to operate, manage and maintain an ALD coating plant, alongside familiarity with techniques used in the analysis of thin film layers such as ellipsometry.
The addition of an ALD coating capability has improved the device’s working lifetime by 100 times or more, protecting existing markets, opening up new markets that were previously inaccessible to the company and creating a target area for future growth.
The development of ALD technology at Photek has kept open a market that it thought was about to disappear. The technical expertise developed as a result has been transferred to the business, alongside a separate coating technology that has opened up new opportunities in the research of inertial confinement fusion.
Turnover attributed to the KTP increased by around £300,000, with £1,000,000 of growth forecast within the next three years. Pre-tax profits also more than doubled. Significantly, the new capability also maintains a level playing field with Photek’s competitors, which are also taking on similar research.
It’s always good to have new ideas coming into the business. ALD has emerged as a key technology in improving our detector performance in several areas that will lead to greater market share. The KTP has also proven to be very successful in embedding ALD knowledge and experience within the staff at Photek.Dr James Milnes, R&D Manager, Photek
ALD is a cyclic manufacturing process, which utilises self-limiting surface reactions to ‘digitally’ control the deposition of a wide range of ultra-thin film materials. It not only offers sub-nanometre control of film thickness and composition, but it enables highly uniform, pinhole free coatings to be put down on virtually any type of surface, including very high aspect ratio 3D structures. ALD is a highly scalable process that is providing solutions to a wide range of industrial challenges in a diverse range of manufacturing sectors.