What happens when an SME (Small and Medium sized  Enterprise) realises that it has produced a high-tech product of potential value to fusion R&D? This case study shows how the development, encouraged by the fusion community, can be just the beginning.

In the early 1970s, scientists at Queen Mary College (London) were developing a new type of  millimetre-wave (short wavelength microwave) detector for use in astronomy. At about the same time, fusion physicists were developing a new plasma diagnostic technique based on the measurement of the millimetrewave radiation emitted by fusion plasmas. The new detector had exactly the characteristics they were searching for: high sensitivity, large bandwidth and good optical access when built into the liquid helium cryostat used to cool it.

Following successful tests of the detector at UKAEA-Culham, the College started to market the new detector through a small spin-off company, QMC Instruments Ltd.

The company rapidly evolved into the supplier of complete millimetre-wave detector packages to the world’s fusion laboratories.

During the 1980s, the new diagnostic was adopted by almost all the world’s fusion experiments, and further evolution of the instrumentation (multi-channel spectrometers with up to 20 detectors) created a lot of business.

At the same time, other requirements of the fusion environment, such as reduced liquid helium consumption to prolong the interval between refills, pushed QMC Instruments into new areas such as the development of sophisticated filters to block unwanted thermal radiation without sacrificing signal.

Systems now operate for many weeks without any maintenance.

By the early 1990s, most of the leading fusion laboratories had enough detectors for their needs and the volume of fusion related business began to fall. However, QMC Instruments was able to use the expertise it had acquired to adapt the detectors for non-fusion applications. Today, fusion laboratories account for only a small part of the more than 1 M Euro turnover of QMC Instruments. It sells sophisticated detectors for space applications, laboratory spectroscopy and remote sensing. Recently, new applications have started opening up in biological and medical research. In the words of Sales and Marketing Director, Ken Wood, “By investing in development to satisfy the demands of the fusion community in the early years, we produced much better products which have now found applications in many other areas. We are proud of the contribution we have made to scientific endeavor, but it would never have got off the ground without the impetus provided by the fusion community”.