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CHEQUERS Report Summary

Project ID: 645535
Funded under: H2020-EU.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - CHEQUERS (Compact High pErformance QUantum cascadE laseR Sensors)

Reporting period: 2015-03-01 to 2016-02-29

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

In a world where explosive, toxic or otherwise lethal substances are, sadly, no longer restricted to theatres of war, but are becoming increasingly common in civilian areas (encountered either by misfortune or misadventure), the ability to detect and identify hazardous chemicals and compounds quickly, easily and at significant range is highly attractive. Even after a terrorist attack has occurred, significant danger still exists from the threat of further concealed devices, thus significantly impeding the rendering of aid whilst the scene is declared safe. Whilst there has been significant investment in sensor technology to address this need, no single solution has yet been demonstrated which can fulfil the often conflicting needs of high sensitivity, speed, low cost, ease of use, portability and the ability to detect and identify multiple target molecular compounds against confused and unforgiving scenes. In the CHEQUERS project, we will address this capability by realising two devices, both based around the same core technologies, which draw on the considerable expertise and excellence of the consortium partners. Crucially, we will be guided by and work with civil security services and in so doing work towards realising utile, field-deployable instruments within the time frame of the project. Our commitment to this goal is evident from the inclusion of a steering group within our consortium, composed of an international panel representing potential end users of this technology.
Many of the detection technologies realised to date are characterised by end‐user impracticality, prohibitive cost, insufficient performance in terms of sensitivity or speed, and complexity of use. We will exploit our experience and expertise to overcome these shortfalls through the use of a technique known as active hyperspectral imaging in the molecular fingerprint spectral region, where a sequence of images, each acquired at a different wavelength, is spectroscopically analysed to identify and locate in‐scene hazards. Such a system depends upon many critical components and our approach in the CHEQUERS project is to optimally design and realise each one with the demands of the end use in mind. Crucially, our expertise encompasses not only the hardware aspects required to achieve such a goal, but the advanced signal processing software necessary to interpret the acquired data and automatically present it to non‐scientifically trained personnel in a clear, unambiguous format.
We will develop two devices in the CHEQUERS project, each of which will address a particular end‐user need. The first will be for the rapid and long‐range (10’s m) surveying of wide areas with ultra‐high sensitivity. This will be a tripod-mounted device, which will utilise a very high-finesse, broadly tunable ring‐resonator QCL coupled with a raster scanning imaging head with high backscattered radiation collection capability. Information will be presented to the user in monochrome pictorial format with the location and nature of any detected hazard rendered in false colour. Such an instrument would be ideal for wide area preventative surveying at potentially sensitive, high-threat locations such as airports, government buildings and stadiums. It will also find application in aforementioned post‐terrorist scenes of attack, where large areas need to be quickly and confidently declared safe. The second device we will develop will address the urgent requirement for highly portable, low‐cost detection hardware. Here, we will optimise the usability and value of the instrument by sacrificing unnecessary (i.e. long‐range) performance. Therefore, for use in confined areas, or scenes where the presence of dangerous substances is suspected, we will develop a very low‐ cost, highly‐compact (<3 kg), handheld device, which, whilst being limited in range (<5 m) compared to its tripod mounted counterpart, will be highly pervasive due to its lower cost, extreme portability and ease of use.
By working with potential end users of the devices we will pioneer, the ultimate goal of the CHEQUERS project is to develop a highly impactful technology, which will deliver safety, security and economic benefit to society.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

In the first period of the project work has progressed well in all workpackages, with good collaboration and communication being established as a basis of the project work.
In WP1 all partners contributed to the system design phase, following advice regarding the most important specifications of the devices regarding end-user needs and provided a first list of target substances. The target spectra served as most important input for defining the target spectral range (10 µm – 7.5 µm).
Optical layouts of different complexity for the two systems were proposed, and the implications, especially for the handheld device, were discussed thoroughly. A set of specifications was set for the handheld scanner and its components (e.g. beam size, wavelength range, power, MEMS and detector parameters).
The first growth and process run was carried out. Laser chips from processed wafers were cleaved, mounted, coated and measured and initial characterisation of laser chips was carried out. The laser structure for the tripod device was optimised towards higher output power and cw operation, as required for the envisaged single frequency ring resonator, and cw operation was demonstrated on uncoated, free running chips.
QCL chips on heatsink with AR coatings on both sides and integrated collimation optics suitable for ERC development were realised and characterised. Operation of these chips in a preliminary ring EC-configuration including wavelength tuning via a diffraction grating was demonstrated, proving the feasibility of such a setup.
WP2 started with a system design phase, and all partners contributed with their input to define requirements for the tripod and handheld detector specifications. Analog electronics for the amplification of the signal from the detector were developed and low-noise, fast preamplifiers for both the tripod and handheld versions of the detectors were simulated and developed.
The experimental and modelling efforts in WP3 are relevant to both the tripod and the handheld imagers due to the complementarity between the two devices. Initial experimental effort was focused on implementing a 1D (x-axis) imaging system with an additional tilt sensor (y-axis) using a visible HeNe laser. In this system, the galvanometers were used for projection and collection and the image was acquired and displayed on bespoke electronics.
A spectral database containing six explosive substances was established in WP4 and the spectra covering the relevant range between 7.5 µm and 10 µm were recorded using well established spectroscopy methods consider target spectral resolution of the final measurement device. A signal acquisition scheme was developed, that ensures highest possible spectral resolution and stability of the final measurement device. Techniques that provide a high speed data transfer to the microprocessor used for signal processing were established and the proposed signal acquisition process was verified in a preliminary laboratory setup of the measurement principle using a digital lock-in amplifier with an integrated boxcar averager.
WP6 the information received from the end-users was relayed to the consortium and this allowed for the specifications for the imagers to be finalized.
Main results achieved in the first period of the CHEQUERS project:
• Specifications for sub-components for the handheld device set, e.g. wavelength range, beam diameter, repetition rate, scanning frequency
• First QCL growth and processing run completed
• QCL chips on heatsink with integrated collimation optics ready for the handheld device as well as the ring resonator
• AR coatings with facet reflectivites of <0.5% were realised
• Drive electronics for both devices ready: Includes laser drivers for pulsed and cw operation, temperature controller and user control interface
• External cavity operation in a ring cavity, including wavelength tuning, has been demonstrated
• Multiple diagnostics tools have been built to test and characterise QCLs
• Wafers with spectral response optimised for the CHEQUERS project have been realised
• The single elements are ready to be integrated into the detectors
• The electronic analog block is ready to integrated into the detectors
• Overall system specifications for hand-held imager have been set, i.e. working range, wavelength, power, beam size, etc.
• Hand-held imager’s optical design has been modelled and all partners in the consortium have agreed on a design to push forward with
• MEMS parameters have been defined, this allow IPMS to develop a MEMS design that is capable of meeting the required specifications
• Preliminary Newtonian telescope scanning system has been realised, which is very similar to the system that will ultimately be used in the final system design
• Explosive substance spectral library has been established
• Spectra of six “substances of interest” have been added to library to date
• The signal acquisition process has been determined and established
• Algorithms for hyperspectral target detection have been realised and implemented
• The end-user group has been formed and demonstrated their interest in testing the CHEQUERS devices
All deliverables and milestone due in the first period of the project have been achieved, and the work carried out has created a solid foundation for the project which will now build on this to achieve its goals in the remaining periods.

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

By focusing on the needs of the end user and the likely scenarios in which the instruments CHEQUERS will develop must operate, and by building on the experience of the consortium and the considerable research effort which has been undertaken globally, the CHEQUERS consortium have devised a methodology which is uniquely placed to solve the vexing problem of rapid, low cost and man portable stand-off hazard detection. We have chosen active hyperspectral imaging in the low-wavelength infra-red as a platform on which to accomplish this, hence avoiding the eye safety and high power requirements of Raman- and Laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy-based stand-off techniques. The cost, complexity and wavelength limitations are of parametric devices are obviated through the use of quantum cascade laser technology, and the external cavity configurations we will implement (driven by the requirements of the two devices we will realise) are uniquely fit for this purpose. The external cavity ring geometry, combining the quantum cascade laser technology and frequency control mechanisms, will deliver a low-wavelength infra-red spectroscopic source of exquisite linewidth and tunability, ideal for ultralow noise, high precision measurements. The source for the handheld device, driven by the needs of low power, ultra-compact geometry and extreme wavelength tuning agility, is enabled through the combination of quantum cascade laser and Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems technology. Finally, the integration of these devices into scanning mechanisms featuring state-of-the-art, Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems-actuated scanning mirrors and advanced detection technology, will enable the rapid acquisition of data over considerable standoff distances and will overcome the problem of blackbody emission of the target area. This, combined with advanced signals processing techniques for automatic spectra extraction and identification, will simplify the user interface and will liberate this technology from the research laboratory. The outcomes of CHEQUERS will therefore be highly utile instruments, which will be well placed to find application in a range of real world hazard detection scenarios.
CHEQUERS is an innovative and timely advance in optically-based sensing solutions for the detection of threats and hazards in civil safety and security applications. For the first time novel lasers, state-of-the-art low-cost infrared detectors and advanced optical Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems will be married to form a disruptive synergy that will release the potential of high-resolution detection in the crucial molecular fingerprint region, at safe standoff distances (10s of meters) and with real-time imaging capabilities. To date, no sensing systems have been able to meet the form factor and performance criteria necessary to attempt to address the technical challenge being addressed by CHEQUERS. The wavelength agility and compact form factor of the quantum cascade-based laser source combined with the Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems-based imaging module will not only provide a compelling solution to this challenge but will meet an unprecedented cost point that no competing technology is currently close to matching.
The technology development within CHEQUERS is driven by application and end-user requirements, knowledge of which is being obtained through a strong supply chain feedback process. For this reason, the consortium established an end user network of civil security agencies that will shape the technological capability and ultimately provide access and engagement in target markets across a number of national security organisations, initially in Europe but eventually worldwide. It is difficult to identify the precise addressable market for the technology developed within CHEQUERS, however, its scale can be estimated by looking at it bottom up as well as top down. From the top-level perspective, the explosives detection market is of the order of $2.2bn.
The impact potential of CHEQUERS will be bolstered by the related research activity of the consortium partners, who are all currently engaged in a variety of complementary collaborative projects. These activities that will have direct and indirect benefits to the CHEQUERS work programme both during and after the project.
The impact of CHEQUERS will be consistent with the Europe 2020 targets on employment and R&D investment. The results will increase employment levels in the industrial partners and down through their supply chains. The necessary and substantial R&D investment beyond the project to fully realise the product in mass markets will be undertaken. To achieve the ambitious goals set in CHEQUERS, a trans-national programme is essential to mobilise a critical mass of the research and development resources and skills existing in Europe. The complex and interdependent technologies envisaged in this project require a high level of complementarity of key players in this area: material growers, laser system designers, Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems specialists, system integrators and end-users. The collaborative work that will be carried out has all the ingredients to be extremely successful. The consortium participants all have international reputations in the development of semiconductor materials/structures as well as their use in efficient mid-wavelength infra-red lasers and related applications. All of the partners have an excellent record of collaboration with other groups in Europe and have an outstanding record in producing high quality results and joint publications. The research and development in the area of compact active hyperspectral imaging systems has emerged as a success story in the European photonics industry however there is significant competition in the source and application areas targeted in this project from researchers and companies in the Far East and US. The research proposed in CHEQUERS is therefore essential to guarantee that Europe remains a worldwide leader in the area of compact hyperspectral imaging systems.

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