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CHEQUERS Report Summary

Project ID: 645535
Funded under: H2020-EU.

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - CHEQUERS (Compact High pErformance QUantum cascadE laseR Sensors)

Reporting period: 2016-03-01 to 2017-05-31

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

In a world where explosive, toxic or otherwise lethal substances are, sadly, are becoming increasingly common in civilian areas, the ability to detect and identify hazardous chemicals and compounds quickly, easily and at significant range is highly attractive. Even after an attack has occurred, significant danger still exists from the threat of further concealed devices, thus significantly impeding the rendering of aid until the scene is declared safe. While 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.
CHEQUERS will develop two devices. The first will be for the rapid and long‐range 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. Such an instrument would be ideal for wide area preventative surveying at potentially sensitive, high-threat locations such as airports, government buildings and stadiums. The second device 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, handheld device, which, whilst being limited in range 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, 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

Within the project to date work has progressed well in all workpackages, with good collaboration and communication being established as a solid and essential 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 the most important input for defining the target spectral range (10 µm – 7.5 µm). QCL material for complete technical development of both laser devices is now available, and improvements made to laser drivers and broadband AR coatings. A µEC-QCL module has been operated successfully and several iterations of an external ring cavity QC laser have been realised.
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. Two batches of the detection modules have been delivered for testing in both tripod and handheld devices.
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. The final optical design for the both the tripod and handheld systems have now been realised, and completion of midterm testing performed where various substances were able to be detected successfully.
A spectral database containing 15 substances has been established in WP4 and the spectra covering the relevant range between 7.5 µm and 10 µm were recorded using well established spectroscopy methods. Real time operation of the data analysis algorithms has been demonstrated. In WP5 initial testing of the µEC-QCL has taken place along with basic spectroscopic validation.
In WP6 the information received from the end-users has enabled the specifications for the imagers to be finalised.

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)

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 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 MEMS-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, 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 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. 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, MEMS 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. 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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