AlphaMicron: A Liquid Crystal Technology That Can Change Light Levels Instantaneously
The pilot scans information feeding into his helmet-mounted display, tracking air speed and monitoring changing information about the target on the ground. In a quick turn and descent, he pushes the plane from flickering gloom of a high stratus layer up to a brightly lit flight path above the clouds. For intermittent moments, his helmet-mounted display screen washes out in the changing light conditions.
A thousand miles away outside a remote desert village, a special ops team storms a warehouse where hostages are being held, bursting from glaring daylight into a dark, windowless building. Do they waste precious seconds swapping sunglasses for clear ballistic eyewear before they enter?
Concern about reliable visibility of helmet-mounted displays led to a revolutionary light-attenuating liquid crystal technology that is working its way into flight helmet visors as well as combat eyewear for on-the-ground warfighters.
Bahman Taheri was on the faculty at Kent State University’s renowned Liquid Crystal Institute (LCI) when the Air Force approached looking for solutions to their helmet-mounted display visibility issues—solutions that had so far been stubbornly elusive. Traditional transition lenses (like in glasses that turn dark when exposed to sunlight), are based on a passive photochromic system, which was far too slow for military purposes, and also doesn’t work in a cockpit or behind a windshield. A faster electrochromic system is used for things like darkening windows, but that technology is energy consumptive and the application to optics is limited.
The catch was, the Air Force wasn’t merely interested in feasibility when they approached LCI. “They wanted a product, not more research,” recalls Taheri. That meant the Air Force needed to work with a company, not an academic institution. Taheri felt intrigued, challenged, and confident he could help. With the backing of an Air Force SBIR, he and two colleagues from the LCI, Tamas Kosa and Peter Palffy-Muhoray, co-founded AlphaMicron in 1997.
Under the multi-phase Air Force SBIR, AlphaMicron developed a liquid crystal technology, integrated into a flexible film, that can instantaneously adapt to changing ambient light conditions with the click of a small battery-powered switch.
Dubbed eTint®, the technology is based on the integration of a dichroic dye into a liquid crystal matrix. Dichroic dyes are comprised of molecules with directional orientation. Researchers have synthesized several hundred different types of dichroic dyes, and can design molecules with specific properties. When dissolved into liquid crystal, the dye molecules tend to arrange themselves in alignment with the liquid crystal molecules. So when a voltage is applied to make the liquid crystal “host” orient in a certain way, the “guest” dichroic dye follows suit. This changes the transmission of light through the host. According to Taheri, the mixture of dichroic dye and liquid crystal is a little bit like the Coca-Cola formula. It has to hit the exact right sweet spot, in a complicated process of experimentation, tweaking, and testing. Not only did AlphaMicron need to find the correct liquid-crystal-to-dye formula, they also had to meet other specific parameters set by the Air Force: the technology had to work on a curved plastic platform, have a clear state of 50 to 70 percent (about the same as a car windshield), and importantly, be a “fail to clear” system. In other words, if the battery failed, the visor would revert to the clear state. This was among the most challenging aspects to the technology, but AlphaMicron succeeded on all fronts.
“We really believe in the SBIR program,” says Taheri. “It isn’t a ‘Field of Dreams, you build it and they will come,’ type of thing. SBIRs identify a specific problem in need of a working solution.”
Taheri admits that while he and his colleagues knew a lot about the science of liquid crystals, they had very little experience building a business. For that they turned to a Kent business incubator for assistance. According to the incubator’s Linda Yost, “They are scientists, not businessmen, but there is an entrepreneurial spirit in this company.” It’s a spirit fed by the energy and cultural diversity of the employees, which now number 35. Along with their “born in the U.S.A.” employees, AlphaMicron workers come from the Far East, Middle East, Mexico, Russia, Ukraine, and beyond, and are about evenly split between men and women. They even had an intern from Mongolia. Taheri, who emigrated from Iran during the 1979 revolution, says “when you bring in people from a lot of different cultures, they’re all going to look at a problem in different ways. I think that’s what lets you create something new.”
Because of the time to develop the formula and the stringent, time-consuming process to get products into the military pipeline, the technology has not yet been transitioned to the Air Force in a wholesale way. But in the meantime, AlphaMicron is making its entry into the more readily accessible consumer market, one step at a time. The eTint® technology has recently been integrated into cutting edge Italian- and Japanese-made motorcycle helmets and goggle-style sunglasses for cyclists. The private sector has shown so much interest that a 2015 Indiegogo campaign launched by AlphaMicron’s brand new subsidiary CTRL Eyewear generated more than $600,000 in pre-sales, for glasses that start around $200 per pair. The goal going into the crowdfunding campaign was to raise $20,000. From wearables, the company envisions their technology in window coverings, automobile mirrors, and myriad other consumer and commercial products.
While the visor technology transitions, AlphaMicron continues to collaborate with the Air Force on new projects. Currently, the company is working on a three-dimensionally curved film for F-35 flight helmets, and also on flash-protection eyewear. In addition, AlphaMicron is working with the Army to produce transitional combat eyewear, winning an open bid in competition with the military’s current major eyewear suppliers.
“We based our company on the Air Force SBIR,” Taheri says. “Without that program, we wouldn’t have our company, and we wouldn’t be making any of these products.”
You might not ever need to check your helmet-mounted display for altitude and target data, but you just might want to switch your ski goggles to dark when the sun comes out on the slopes, or clear your motorcycle helmet when you ride into a tunnel. Thanks to AlphaMicron, the future looks bright, in any light.