FINCASTLE — A handful of micro assemblers spend their days peering through microscopes on the second floor of a nondescript downtown office building, tweezers in hand as they piece together components small enough to rest on the tip of a pencil.
There’s a delicate diamond wafer that’s the width of a sheet of paper and cones that are difficult to see with the naked eye. All the components are put together inside an ice cube-sized metal case, and sell for $1,500 to $3,600.
Micro Harmonics invented the device and is working on others with the help of $1.75 million in NASA grants.
Company owner David Porterfield Jr. said the doohickey is known among scientists as a Faraday rotation isolator.
“And I don’t know any other way to say it, so –,” he said.
Isolators are like one-way valves for electromagnetic waves. They allow signals to pass through in one direction, but absorb anything that bounces back going the other way. The goal of the device is to reduce reflection interference, without weakening the signal.
Everything in Micro Harmonics’ tiny isolators must be aligned perfectly or they simply won’t work. One employee can produce about two per day.
It’s a tedious task that Porterfield said scares away most engineers, but he sees an open market and the opportunity to dominate a growing industry.
The company’s first product hit shelves in June 2018, amassing $400,000 in sales during the first 12 months.
The Botetourt County startup is now enrolled in Roanoke’s RAMP business accelerator, hoping to drive more sales and potentially outside investment.
Isolator devices are common in the electronics industry, but not at this size.
Invisible electromagnetic waves are all around us, powering everything from TV antennas to microwave ovens.
Signals used for radio broadcasts can have wavelengths over a mile long. Cellphones use wavelengths measured in feet. Micro Harmonics, meanwhile, deals in wavelengths that are millimeters long.
And as wavelengths get smaller, so must the isolators.
Enter Micro Harmonics’ team of microscope-dependent assemblers.
These kinds of high-frequency systems are burgeoning technology with potential applications in 5G and 6G wireless devices, NASA instruments used to map the chemical makeup of the atmosphere, outer space communication systems and body scanners at the end of airport security lines.
Porterfield and his sister, Diane Kees, handle the technical side of the business, while a handful of micro assemblers manufacture and test the devices.
Porterfield previously co-founded Virginia Diodes Inc., a successful Charlottesville-based firm.
He sold his stake in that business in 2008 and launched Micro Harmonics, at first just to consult with his previous company.
He said he was approached by Virginia Diodes a few years ago, asking if he could build a Faraday rotation isolator that the company needed for its own products.
“It’s a very interesting device, but it’s very esoteric and most people don’t want to touch it with a 10-foot pole,” Porterfield said, adding that he initially rejected the offer.
But he said Virginia Diodes persisted, since there was nothing on the market that could do the job well.
Eventually, Porterfield relented. He said he would apply for NASA funding. If the space organization would pay for the development, he would do it. Otherwise, he wouldn’t.
“And then they funded it,” Porterfield said.
“And here we are,” Kees added.
The siblings started in a 300-square-foot office and have grown the business since. Porterfield previously worked in Waynesboro, but moved the business to downtown Fincastle to find cheaper real estate and to be closer to his sister and mechatronics students coming out of Virginia Western Community College.
The startup landed a $125,000 NASA grant in 2015, then $750,000 the following year. That funding allowed the company to develop the isolator it’s selling today.
In 2018, Micro Harmonics received another $125,000 NASA grant, followed by $750,000 more last month.
The new funding is to build the same device, but one capable of operating at cryogenic temperatures. That way it can survive in outer space or super-cooled equipment on Earth.
The company’s goal is to get a device that works at 4 degrees Kelvin, which is the equivalent of 452 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
“People can take our device, take it apart and good luck to them building one,” Porterfield said of potential competitors trying to rip off their design. “We’ve taken every wrong turn you could take on the way to making ones that work really well. There are a lot of dead ends you can go down.”