In 2017, the European Space Agency launched the Sentinel 5-p satellite as part of its advanced Earth observation programme, Copernicus. The technology on board allows humans for the first time to map dozens of otherwise invisible atmospheric pollutants and their effects on the planet, establishing facts about climate change that will be critical if there’s to be meaningful agreement between nations to stop it.
High stakes indeed, not least for the satellite’s suppliers.
"There was only one real problem," recalls Graeme Malcolm, CEO and founder of Glasgow-based M Squared, which provided the precision lasers used to calibrate the satellite’s instruments. "Airbus had a €350m fully assembled fight-model satellite in their UK cleanroom and we’d installed a powerful (five watt) laser right next to it. If we hit it in the wrong place for more than a third of a second, we’d write off €350m worth of satellite."
There’s a reason lasers destroying satellites sounds like something straight out of a cold war spy novel. The technology is indelibly associated with the high-technology of the post-war era, at least in the popular imagination.
The reality is that lasers are far more commonplace now than they’ve ever been, finding their way into everything from simple electronics to the fiber optics that underpin the internet, to the hands of idiots pointing off-the-shelf types at passing planes. At the lower level, they’ve become a commodity.
Not so at the higher end. The lasers of the sort produced by M Squared aren’t commonplace, but are still deeply involved in some of the most advanced industrial processes you’ll find.
"We make the world’s purest light," explains Malcolm, who co-founded the company in 2006. That’s really about producing light at very precise wavelengths or colours, he explains. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet just won’t cut it.
"Imagine the whole optical spectrum of wavelengths we can access is a loaf. How narrowly we can slice that loaf depends on our knife. Well we’ve made a knife that can chop this loaf into 50 million slices."
Why this is critical for a project like the ESA’s Copernicus is that having such a degree of precision allows us to see things, like NO2, that the human eye hasn’t evolved to. And the more precisely we can see, the more precisely we can do.
For example, how many transistors do you imagine are in a modern smartphone chip, of the variety made by UK-founded Arm Holdings?
If your answer is much below 300 million, you’re way off. "Moore’s Law [where computing power supposedly doubles every 18 months] is really about making things smaller and smaller and smaller inside the chip. But we’re going past the point where these components are so small that we can’t actually see them any more," says Malcolm.
Green light, for instance, has a wavelength of 500 nanometers; the smallest transistors are now 45nm. The answer, for the time being, is laser microscopes, which can see at precision in narrower wavelengths than the regular sort. But in the long run, the problem can only be solved by an entirely new type of computing, quantum.
Quantum computers could achieve immense processing power without needing to pack more and more transistors into a chip, instead relying on the varying quantum states of atoms themselves (read this piece for an explainer that won’t give you a headache).
Yet even quantum computers will depend on lasers, which are presently the only way to trap and cool atoms so that they form qubits, the basic processing unit of a quantum computer.
Other equally futuristic uses of advanced lasers include 3D imaging techniques, which could enable life scientists to model a body down to the level of individual cells, deactivating viruses with ultrashort pulses of light (less than a trillionth of a second), and beaming power directly to spacecraft from the surface of the earth.
Suffice it to say it’s a growth industry. M Squared turned over £17.6m in 2019, having enjoyed five years with a compound annual growth rate of 34 per cent. It is profitable, despite heavy spending on new technologies (Malcolm says the total invested in innovation over the last decade was around £50m), and takes 95 per cent of its from international sales.
The company’s strategy involves an 80:20 split between off-the-shelf products and innovative new projects such as the ESA satellite calibration. These are necessarily highly expensive, but prove critical not just in pushing technological capabilities but also in establishing credibility.
"We generally go for tier one customers in the roll-out of our technology, so it often starts with universities like Harvard and Stanford. We often have Nobel-Prize winning groups working with us. It comes down to word-of-mouth marketing - we sell to the best and they help get our brand out," says Malcolm.
They also provide a rich seam of future employees - recruitment being a tricky task in such a niche field. It helps to be based in Glasgow, which has a long history of developing defence technologies, dating back to the arms race that led to HMS Dreadnaught before the First World War.
The UK more widely is an attractive place to set up a business relying on the level of technology you’d usually associate with universities, owing to the strength of the higher education sector here.
While many hi-tech companies do their research in Britain, M Squared is perhaps rare in also doing its manufacturing in the country.
"The UK is a good place to create super value goods. We’re doing a lot of things that haven’t been done before, and we wouldn’t want to lose that learning - a lot of people [outsource] for a short term financial game but I actually see our manufacturing capability as a long-term strategic advantage," says Malcolm. "We want to stay as close as possible to the engineering."
Main image credit: United Artists/Courtesy of Getty Images