Updating laser export control regulations: An SPIE success story

01 March 2023
Jennifer O'Bryan
Export stamp

For many years, SPIE has been hearing from our community about the impacts of export controls and the need to assist regulators in making informed decisions. We have worked diligently with businesses and universities on proposals to make changes to the international agreements governing export controls for a significant portion of the developed world. This process is long and bureaucratic with many potential pitfalls that can derail a proposal from being adopted. Thanks to a consistent and collaborative effort from SPIE and the business community, we have recently seen positive updates to two regulations that will have direct impact on the optics and photonics community.

In December 2022, the Wassenaar Arrangement (WA)—a voluntary export-control regime among 42 member states—announced their most-recent agreements. Two of these, concerning lasers, began as proposals  shepherded through the agreement process by SPIE. We did so as chair of the US Department of Commerce Sensors and Instrumentation Technical Advisory Committee (SITAC) and—with Germany’s high-tech industry association, Spectaris—as co-lead of the WA Laser Working Group.

One agreement increases the power limit for high-powered nontunable pulsed green lasers from 50 W to 80 W. SPIE worked closely with representatives from affected companies and the US government to bring forward a proposal for increasing this power limit. Commercial applications for these types of green lasers include photovoltaic production, micro-electronics manufacturing, glass processing, and other industrial applications. Pulse frequency of these lasers is key to faster manufacturing productivity. However, increased pulse frequency necessitates increased power levels.

The regulation’s previous 50 W power limit put companies with manufacturing capacity in countries compliant with WA agreements at a competitive disadvantage. A license was required to export green lasers operational beyond this power limit.

Multiple companies based in China, however, manufacture nontunable pulsed green lasers that exceed the 50 W power threshold. The companies include well-known manufacturers like YSL Photonics, Logan Laser, and Beijing ZK Laser. China is not a WA member state and therefore has no obligation to comply with its export restrictions. So, by increasing the limit to 80 W, companies based in WA member states are now on a more even playing field internationally with their Chinese competitors.

The second proposal SPIE helped shepherd to agreement, made changes to a control on single-mode semiconductor lasers with a wavelength greater than 1,510 nm. Increasingly, single-mode, eye-safe laser diodes have been used for automotive lidar applications. SPIE worked closely with Luminar Technologies and the US government on this proposal to increase the power level for these applications.

The work demonstrates some of the complexity of WA’s bureaucratic process. First, we needed to request that the allowable wavelength limit for single-mode semiconductor lasers be increased to 1,570 nm. This moved these lasers to a different regulatory “entry” or category where we could request an additional power limit increase—from 1.5 W to 2 W. By increasing the power limit to 2 W for these lasers, we have cleared the path for commercial development of the technology without fear of export restrictions.

“We applaud the US government, [and other] participating governments for agreeing to update export controls on single- mode semiconductor lasers in light of the significant scientific advancements being achieved,” says Luminar Vice President of Sensor Development Joe LaChapelle. “Our Freedom Photonics team at Luminar can now demonstrate over 10 watts of
single-mode laser diode output in the C-band. Updating [the WA entry] will allow significant cost and power savings improvements for high-performance lidar systems utilized in proactive automotive safety systems and we appreciate the efforts of SPIE to connect industry with government to ensure the photonics industry is represented in these important policy decisions.”

At Photonics West this year, SPIE and Spectaris once again hosted a meeting of the WA Laser Working Group to discuss export control proposals for 2023 submission.

Jennifer O’Bryan is SPIE Director of Government Affairs.


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