Lithuanian hi-tech manufacturer Brolis Semiconductors operates at the very cutting-edge of laser technology and product development. The company is the brainchild of three brothers (Augustinas, Dominykas and Kristijonas Vizbaras), and produces laser-based systems that can now be found in quantum computers, research laboratories and even military reconnaissance equipment. In fact, the French, British and Canadian armed forces, amongst others, are now using laser-based equipment developed by Brolis Semiconductors. And going forward, the Vizbaras brothers are confident that their systems will soon be appearing in portable devices.
Components as thin as a single hair
Dominykas Vizbaras, the company’s manager, points out that when most people think of lasers they imagine very large systems. In reality, the essential components used in these systems can fit into a laser diode thinner than a human hair, while the active part is only as thin as a dozen atoms.
Pointing to a small laser diode, he explains that “everyone thinks this is just a trifle. And when they see a laser marker,” he continues, “that’s already something substantial. However, as I’ve mentioned, the steel used for laser system components has been processed by people for hundreds of years, and optics have been in production for over two centuries.”
Like every technological component, laser diodes or detectors are born on paper, with engineers first carrying out extensive calculating and modelling. Then everything moves to the laboratory, where semiconductor crystals are synthesised using molecular beam epitaxy.
An ultra-high vacuum, produced by equipment worth $2 million, is used for molecular beam epitaxy, creating a vacuum that is between 100 and 1,000 times higher than normal atmospheric conditions. Active cells connected to the reactor are loaded with ultra-pure substances, mainly group III–V elements like aluminium, indium, gallium, arsenic and antimony.
“By manipulating element atoms we create layers which generate a certain property that can differ dramatically from a standard volumetric crystal depending on the composition, thickness and sequence of the layers”, explained Kristijonas Vizbaras, the company’s technology manager.
Then using x-ray diffraction, photoluminescence and galvanomagnetic techniques, the laser crystal structure is characterised in detail. The specialists at Brolis study its structural, electrical and optical properties, before verifying that the laser has the correct properties and qualities.
In some cases these “raw” laser chips are delivered directly to customers, usually industrial production companies or research institutions. In other cases, the team at Brolis Semiconductors encase them and then integrate them into a range of different systems.
A cat-and-mouse game
With the aid of EU structural funds, Brolis Semiconductors was established by the Vizbaras brothers in 2011 after Augustinas and Kristijonas had completed their doctoral studies in Germany. Dominykas manages the company while Kristijonas and Augustinas are responsible for technology and product development.
The company currently has a staff of 16, with all of its specialist engineers being young scientists who have recently graduated. Most of them studied physics at Vilnius University and have just a BA degree. But as Kristijonas Vizbaras explains, these raw young talents are ideal for Brolis’ activities. “The overall level of BA studies in Physics at Vilnius University is good. And when a specialist is good, you can turn them into what you want them to be,” he said with a smile.
Alongside its main research facility in Lithuania, Brolis Semiconductors has a production division in the UK which produces optical-electronic systems intended for the defence sector. So far, the division has sold these systems to the armed forces of a number of Western European countries, plus Canada and the USA.
Dominykas Vizbaras points to the consumer, industrial, scientific and defence sectors as the core markets for which Brolis Semiconductors develops its products. He also states that components produced in the Lithuanian facility are being used by the most advanced group of scientists working in the area of quantum computers. These scientists are trying to develop critical elements for quantum computers like qubits, which are created by manipulating light particles called photons.
Last year, Brolis Semiconductors successfully moved into the defence sector. The Canadian, British, and French armed forces, plus a number of other NATO countries, use laser markers and reconnaissance systems created by the company. The markers are used by air and land force military personnel, and to help with border protection and control. The majority of the systems developed by Brolis Semiconductors operate at wavelengths invisible to the human eye.
“In defence, it’s like a cat-and-mouse game: I want to see, but remain invisible. And this is what we do – if I know what vision equipment my opponents are using, I know how to hide from them”, Dominykas Vizbaras said. “By playing with different wavelengths and knowing what the opposing force is using, we can match the surveillance equipment with the marker and lighting, whilst remaining invisible”.
Laser markers developed by Brolis Semiconductors cost €5,000–7,000. Matched with vision systems, they allow soldiers to see targets 3–6 kilometres away, even in poor weather conditions.
One of the company’s latest products in the defence sector is a reconnaissance system costing approximately €50,000. A French military laboratory has recognised it as the best night vision digital system available. It helps monitor objects located over ten kilometres away, even in fog, smoke and snow, while at night the system enables soldiers to see almost as well as in broad daylight, according to Mr Vizbaras.
In the future the brothers intend to focus more on the development of consumer products. They are currently developing a wearable laser sensor that can measure certain compounds, parameters, liquids and material compositions. This laser will then be used to report the physical condition of the person wearing the device.
Collaboration with Lithuanian Special Forces
The company started developing complete sets of products for the defence industry following the outbreak of conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
“At the beginning of the crisis in Ukraine we were only selling laser diodes. We then began collaborating with the Lithuanian Special Forces, at which point we realised that they couldn’t use this component by itself – the soldiers needed a complete product instead”, Mr Vizbaras remembered. “In the end, the Lithuanian Armed Forces never bought any products by Brolis Semiconductors. However, our work was not in vain because the armed forces of a number of other NATO countries became interested in our laser markers and other systems.”
According to Mr Vizbaras, although there is a mystique surrounding the defence industry, it is actually much more primitive than the consumer market. Phone producers put out new models every year, while in the defence industry, according to Mr Vizbaras, research is expensive and product development is slower. This means that big players standardise existing products and don’t want to change individual parts.
When asked about the direction the Lithuanian military should choose, Mr Vizbaras envisaged an army of modern soldiers, whose core advantage is their use of hi-tech equipment. “There are few Lithuanians. With modern electrical-optical equipment and vision and marking systems it will be possible to conduct reconnaissance in guerrilla warfare situations under bad weather conditions. Good equipment gives you an advantage”, Mr Vizbaras said.
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