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Whistler company breaks cryogenic barrier



Hidden away among the warehouses in Function Junction used by caterers, painters and dry cleaners, not too many people in Whistler know about Quantum Technology Corp. Even fewer people would be able to understand exactly what it is they do.

But in the field of cryogenic research, using ultra low temperatures for a variety of different applications, Quantum is known around the world.

Quantum products can be found in Korea, Japan, the U.S., Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, Italy, France, the U.K. and Bahrain. They have sold space simulation chambers for spacecraft electronics to Japan, Bristol Aerospace and the Canadian Space Agency. Recently they delivered a cryogenic system to the National Syncrotron Light Source project at the University of Saskatchewan. Quantum also helped to design a massive superconducting magnet test facility for the Korean KSTAR project, which is an experiment in fusion energy.

Quantum Technology Corp., or QTC, has taken another leap forward recently, with the successful testing last week of a Helium 3 dilution refrigeration system – the first commercially built in Canada – capable of creating temperatures below one degree Kelvin. Kelvin is the stand measurement for absolute zero, or minus 273 degrees Centigrade.

"That temperature range is so extreme and so difficult to get to," said QTC president Calvin Winter. "It’s a major step forward to commercially build this thing, building it for experiments in some pretty exciting fields."

Three similar systems have been built for university labs, but the Quantum project is unique because it’s a commercial undertaking, a custom order that Quantum could replicate for other customers. In the ratio of absolute temperatures for this kind of application, where even a fraction of a degrees is a major breakthrough, QTC’s new system is colder by a factor of six.

The system is small enough to fit inside QTC’s warehouse, and the main component is about the size of a water heater. While it may look fairly simple, the interior is a complicated maze of pipes. It takes three computers to run, and about three days to produce temperatures of 1K – in an area the size of a shot glass. It also took the last three years to develop.

The first system was built to order for Brookhaven National Laboratories in Upton, New York, one of America’s leading research institutions, which specializes in particle physics. It will be used in a photon scattering experiment.

According to Winter a team of 10 people, including five with PhDs in Physics, worked on the project.

"We were working 24 hours a day for the last few weeks getting this thing going, so I have to thank everyone for all of their hard work in making this possible," he said.

Winter also thanked Dennis Hanley of Vancouver, who designed the cryogenic system.

Because the system was built from scratch, parts were custom-machined in Whistler, Vancouver, the U.S., and at McMaster University in Hamilton.

As the design evolved, sometimes they would have to wait six months for custom parts to arrive.

Now that the system has been proven, Winter can use the template to build other systems for cryogenic applications.

"The breadth of cryogenic systems we have built has put our company into international standing," he said. "We expect to have other orders for this type of refrigeration. We’ve already had some inquiries about it. It’s such a specialty field."

Winter founded QTC back in 1981, and moved up to Whistler with his family 10 years ago for the mountain lifestyle.

Being a niche high-tech company in Whistler has its challenges. Finding qualified physicists and engineers is always a problem, said Winter, but the Whistler name has helped to attract people to his company.

"We have a 20 centimetre rule," said Winter, which means that whenever the snow report is 20 centimetres or more, work is put on hold.

Quantum has also diversified from cryogenics, forming a joint venture with a factory in South Korea to produce superconducting magnets. The venture will be formally announced at the Cyrogenic Engineering Conference in September.

Among other applications, superconducting magnets are used for Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI scans – something people in Whistler can understand and appreciate.

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