It is uncommon that a company founded only few years ago suddenly becomes widely known not only in the country it was based in, but also in the international arena. This story happened with a high-tech company Brolis Semiconductors founded in 2011, and currently it is well-known not only in Lithuania, but also globally – from Japan to USA. The company specializes in designing semiconductor lasers, laser diodes, and other products. What makes these lasers special?
In the first instance, they can be widely used for various applications, including optical fiber networks, broadband internet, ventilation systems (measurements of gas concentration) and most modern technology, and medicine. Imagine that based on air a person exhales, it could be possible to diagnose cancer or other diseases.
For the meantime, Brolis Semiconductors designs prototypes ordered by companies engaging in the areas of energy, chemistry, ventilation, and automotive industry. Currently, the company has over one hundred clients that are mostly foreign companies, and therefore, the most important concern for the company at this time is not seeking for new clients but to purify its activity and start working with approximately one third or one fourth of the most promising clients.
Based on present capacities, Brolis could be called a scientific-technological company rather than a manufacturing company. The task of the company is to design a prototype or a component of a product based on which the client designs an experimental project. This takes a year or a half or even longer period of time until all the tests are conducted, parameters assessed, and many other procedures common in the high-tech industry are accomplished.
We haven’t mentioned that founders of the company are three brothers Vizbaras’. The senior brother Dominykas is 33 years old, and he has been granted a bachelor of transport engineering at Klaipėda University, and master degree in Transport and Maritime Technology Management at University of Antwerp in Belgium. After coming back to Lithuania in 2007, he has founded the company Brolis Timber and managed the company until 2011. This experience was very useful when establishing the company Brolis Semiconductors.
Twins Augustinas and Kristijonas are just stepping into their thirties. They have studied Telecommunication Physics and Electronics at Vilnius University and acquired the specialty of electronics engineer, they continued their master studies of physics at the Royal Technical University in Sweden, and the Technical University of Munich in Germany where they entered doctoral studies of physics. Kristijonas is the Technical Manager of the company Brolis Semiconductors, and Augustinas is the Commercial Manager of the Company.
Three brothers are all managers, however what they are proud of is not their fancy directors’ chairs; they probably do not even have such. After applying innovative technologies designed by Kristijonas, a semiconductor laser of 3.8 µm (mikrometro) wavelength operating on the basis of GaSb (gallium antimonide) or GaSb/InAs (gallium antimonide and indium arsenide) crystals was designed and became the “heart” of new optoelectronic devices or appliances. Kristijonas went into subtleties of growing laser diode crystals, which eventually became one of the pillars of the technology used in the company established by the brothers.
Augustinas was more interested in QCL development. He managed to develop Quantmechanical lasers generating new wavelengths. By simulating the crystals they were interested in, brothers developed a solid background for the development of new semiconductor materials which were essential for designing new devices.
The company founded by the brothers and located at Molėtai road near Vilnius is a very promising company and it will be definitely developed in the future. Systems designed on the basis of semiconductor devices by this company are applied in the most advanced areas of electronics and optoelectronics. Laser diodes are used for environmental purposes, including measurements of gas concentrations, night vision devices, rescue operations, and even for anti-missile weapons and developing new systems. They can also be applied as embedded systems in oil, gas extraction processes, and industry. In medicine, these lasers can be applied for laser surgery, dermatology, hair removal devices, etc.
During special event “Global Lithuania Awards 2013” held in the Office of the President of Lithuania, brothers Augustinas, Kristijonas and Dominykas Vizbaras’ were granted the Award for the Implementation of International Innovations.
We had a conversation with Commercial Director of UAB Brolis Semiconductors Augustinas VIZBARAS. Later the Technical Manager Kristijonas VIZBARAS also joined the conversation. When talking to them we attempted to discuss the importance of using embedded systems in the products designed by the company.
Strong sides of the company
Dear Augustinas, how Brolis Semiconductors differ from other high-tech companies operating in Lithuania?
Augustinas Vizbaras. First of all, we are different in our very activity. We are called laser company, but actually we are a conductor technology company. Some part of our products is actually related to semiconductor lasers, however, the production technology is fundamentally different from that used for production of solid or other types of lasers. In our case, totally different production principles are used; they are more similar or even the same as the ones used in production of other electronic and microelectronic devices. The technology, technological production base and equipment as well as the skills required for such production are totally different. All the employees in our company are specialists in the area of semiconductors, or engineers of electronics. Another special feature of our company is that the average age of our employees is 26 years.
Perhaps, another distinguishing feature of your company is that you simulate and design semiconductor crystals required for producing lasers and diodes?
A. Vizbaras. We start our production from growing the crystals, and this by far is the major intellectual strength of our company for we are able to apply our knowledge and experience. The subtleties, production technology, and obtaining the necessary parameters are the distinguishing features and strength of our company.
How do you design those crystals?
A. Vizbaras. Firstly, we perform calculations: this is the stage of digitalization and simulation. We plan and agree on what we need to grow, and then we start growing. Growing takes place on the basis of molecular beam epitaxy; currently, this is the most precise method that allows growing a crystal at the precision level of one atomic monolayer.
Is it thinner than a single monolayer?
A. Vizbaras. It is significantly thinner. By placing an atom to another atom, it is possible to synthesize these nanostructures. Operation of our semiconductor lasers is based on the quantum wells effect. We calculate these structures, and the set of layers which are made of different atoms that perform different functions in the operation of the device being designed. We start from simulation and then proceed to synthesising. The crystal obtained is used for producing chips – laser-based or electronic, depending on what type of device or appliance is needed.
How many operations or technological steps are required to obtain such chip?
A. Vizbaras. It requires approximately 14–15 technological steps, and takes approximately three weeks. This includes photolithography, dielectric deposition, metal evaporation, and other steps. Then we split the chips, and steam-process the coating for chips that are intended for lasers. The very laser is very small – 1 mm in length and 200 µm in width.
Is small size an advantage? Or does it cause problems?
A. Vizbaras. The only problem is that you cannot take it with your fingers. In order to work with objects of this size, special robots and devices are required. Out of all the technologies, semiconductor technologies require major capital investments – the equipment used is precise and very expensive. When other laser companies most often assemble they lasers by hand, and mount lenses, we would not be able to make it without robots. Man cannot work with such small sizes.
Advantages of semiconductor lasers
Thus we have approached the issue of using embedded systems (microcontrollers) in the activity of the company Brolis.
A. Vizbaras. Our micro laser is only one example of components used for devices designed by our clients – systems integrators – beside own controllers and other devices. All this results in a system that performs own function. There can be very interesting systems and interesting applications. The advantage of the systems is that they use our micro lasers. How are they important? Our lasers are unique in the range of colours they generate and operation parameters. Today, we have the least threshold powers in the global market, in other words – the highest energy efficiency. Our laser lights up when it receives 12 mW electrical power. This is a very low power obtained from a small cranial element. This type of lasers practically do not emit heat, and therefore, they can be used in simple manual systems as well as in the places where it is difficult to obtain energy. Their efficiency is very high.
Absolute efficiency of our best lasers reaches and exceeds 30 percent, which means that one third of energy is converted into light. In the range of waves generated – from 1.8 to 4 µm – the rate is very high. Moreover, this range of waves is still a relatively “unexploited land”, and there are few who work in this range. The 30 percent rate we have achieved is the best result so far in the global market. The efficiency rates for GaAs diodes in the short wave infrared range reach 60–70 percent. This is a very high rate of efficiency – two thirds of electrical energy is converted into light.
You can hear people talking that semiconductor lasers are too weak to be widely applied.
A. Vizbaras. Such claim cannot be right because we cannot expect enormous from a poppy seed. Today, the highest power in constant activity is 7 W. Little, you say? Bet let us look to the size of that poppy seed that is generating this power. If we look closer, it is an enormous amount of energy. If a refrigerator-sized box is capable to generate 1 kW, and a micro laser that is barely visible can generate 7 W, the efficiency of the latter is relatively higher. If we put an enormous amount of such micro lasers into a box of this size, we could probably achieve even 1 MW of power.
How in this respect solid lasers are less advantageous than semiconductor lasers?
A. Vizbaras. Solid-state lasers are optically pumped, which means a certain lamp needs to be triggered, which also requires energy. Lamp or laser diodes illuminates the crystal thus reducing the efficiency up to 10 percent at best.
The building at Molėtai Road near Riešė where the scientific high-tech company Brolis Semiconductors is based [photo by Gediminas Zemlickas]
Demolition boom and semiconductors
You pay lots of attention to growing crystals, and Lithuania has quite rich experience in this area. It is enough to mention companies, such as Nuklonas, Venta which at the times grew unique semiconductor crystals. Do you engage in some follow-up in your activity, or have you started your activity from zero?
A. Vizbaras. In our case, this is a completely new area. We have had some grassroots of this type of activity in Lithuania, and it is a shame they were not preserved. And I don’t think this was only due to the changes in the regime, or collapse in the old economic links. Maybe, there was also a lack of personalities that were capable to look forward.
Kristijonas Vizbaras. Nuklonas was unashamedly robbed from inside. Currently we have a molecular beam epitaxy reactor for growing 3.5 µm semiconductor crystals, and Nuklone used to have a series of such reactors that were manufactured by the French company Ribero. When the transformations of the regime were taking place, a group of scientists from Vilnius University went to Nuklonas to know if something could be bought for a reasonable price. Guess what have they found? Over one night, the entire expensive equipment was broken into pieces and sold to scrap metal dealers. And this was done with the equipment worth tens of millions. It could have been purchased by both Fermentas and Sicor Biotech.
A. Vizbaras. Institutions or companies with the people such as Arvydas Janulaitis, Viktoras Butkus, Vladas Bumelis in the front lines managed to preserve Lithuanian biotechnology. Despite the complex situation in those times, these personalities understood the importance of biotechnology and managed to maintain the level of knowledge. This paid off hundred times.
Similar can be said about Lithuanian laser manufacturers. There were Algis Petras Piskarskas, Romualdas Danielius and others who managed to gather and maintain the critical level of knowledge at the same time retaining this area of science and production. Unfortunately, this was not the case with semiconductors.
Except for the preserved Institute of Semiconductor Physics.
A. Vizbaras. I agree, but Nuklonas and Ventą were lost. What does this mean? This means a 20- year gap in the most prospective activity. After completing the studies in West, we returned to Lithuania and found ourselves in a position where we had to start everything anew. It would have been much easier for us if the continuity would have been maintained.
K. Vizbaras. We should not forget that the persons we have mentioned not only preserved the areas they worked in, i.e. biotechnology and lasers, but have significantly restructured these areas of activity. They were forced to reduce the number of employees; some of them were really good specialists. These decisions were painful but they helped to preserve the nucleus of specialists and scientists that eventually helped to recover these areas, adapted to the new system and developed to the present state.
A. Vizbaras. The mentality of people and attitude towards work needed to be changed. However, in the area of semiconductors, we were standing in a starting position and had to cover the entire distance.
Where did the three brothers take the courage to engage in the activity that scientists and electronic engineers working in Lithuania were not very confident with?
A. Vizbaras. Me and Kristijonas joined the Faculty of Physics of Vilnius University in 2003, and already during the second year of studies we started working in the laboratory. However, no significant European support for obtaining technologies and equipment was given to Lithuania in those times. We had to work with the equipment that was so old that some of the devices did not work. After we joined the European Union in 2004, Lithuania started to get financial support from the EU. From the second year, we started to work at Prof. Vilius Palenskis and Jonas Matukas Noises Research Laboratory in the Department of Radiophysics. We engaged not only in scientific activity but also conducted various measurements. Experimental physics was the area of interest for us, and eventually lead us to semiconductors.
What specifically captured your attention?
A. Vizbaras. Managers of the laboratory obtained laser diodes and photodiodes from their friends in Canada. We saw only obsolete equipment around, and suddenly the manager showed us a photodiode. It was so small we could hardly see it. We saw contacts and everything else through a microscope, and this convinced us it was really a photodiode. My first thought was “No one can produce such subtle things with the equipment used in our lab”. Then I thought about the equipment used in foreign universities. This idea seemed so fascinating to me and the most interesting thing for me was to know how these little things are made and how do they “brace those fleas”.
This naive fascination led us with Kristijonas to the wide world of semiconductors. During the third year of our studies we have decided that after defending our BA thesis and obtaining the diploma we will go abroad and try to know these modern technologies.
K. Vizbaras. We wanted to know more about the science of semiconductor technologies and the very process of production for this was by far the most attractive area for us. Dominykas was older than us and had his own independent story. He acquired education of an engineer, and later of a manager. After graduating from the University of Antwerp in Belgium, he became an engineer of sea transport. His education was not related to physics but his managerial skills and experience were very useful when starting our own business.
Interviewer Gediminas Zemlickas