Senseeker Sponsors UCSB Engineering Capstone Cryogenic Iris Project

Alex Russell (Lead Mechanical Design Engineer) & Trevor Brake (Mechanical Design Engineer)




After sponsoring two electrical engineering Capstone projects in recent years with the University of California, Santa Barbara, (UCSB) College of Engineering, this year Senseeker sponsored its first mechanical engineering project with the program. For this project, industry partners and local research labs worked with a group of seniors in the College of Engineering to work on challenging projects that form the cornerstone of their educational journey. Our student team consisted of Aamir Rehman, Andrew Bresk, Eric Lemieux, Eduardo Garcia-Andres, and Daniel Chen.

Our student team was tasked with designing an iris diaphragm that could operate in high vacuum cryogenic conditions in order to test infrared sensors in Senseeker Sensor Test Units (STUs). The goal was to design an iris suitable for sensors that detect mid-wave infrared radiation (MWIR), thus we needed the iris blades to cool down to around 150 K. Such a device would be very valuable because it would allow for rapid evaluation of infrared sensors at varying levels of light flux. Currently in the industry, fixed diameter apertures are used: testing with a different aperture diameter requires warming up the STU, installing the aperture, vacuum pumping, then cooling back down. Depending on the size of the STU, this could amount to a full day of down-time. The challenges in designing such a device stem from the fact that the iris must be built with materials that are low-outgassing, thermally conductive, don’t produce foreign object debris (FOD) and are able to withstand significant thermal shrinkage over a large temperature delta.

The team started out by designing a liquid nitrogen test Dewar to evaluate these irises. This Dewar succeeded in pumping down to 4.1e-7 Torr, holding that pressure, and actuating the iris with a linear mechanical feedthrough. By pouring liquid nitrogen into the Dewar’s reservoir, the parts inside were capable of cooling down to 80 – 100 K. The team then started testing a few commercially available vacuum-compatible irises, of which the best performer only cooled to 223 K - while the rest of the Dewar was at 95 K - thus confirming the team’s concern that the stainless-steel blades of the iris and their connection to the housing were too thermally insulated from each other. With this baseline in mind, the team applied a special vacuum-compatible grease to the iris blades, which greatly increased conduction - resulting in an operating temperature of 102 K for the blades as well as the rest of the Dewar. Exposed to such low temperatures, however, the grease froze. To address this, the team installed heaters in the Dewar to thaw the grease so the iris could actuate before cooling down again. Once refined, this process ended up taking 2.5 hours, which is a vast improvement over the full day it could take to manually change an aperture. Next, the team experimented with connecting each iris blade to its housing via copper wire to increase thermal conduction, which resulted in the blades reaching 133 K while the rest of the Dewar was at 90 K. This solution met our requirement of < 150 K operation while allowing the iris to actuate without the warming period required by the grease.

Figure 1: Test setup for iris with copper wire thermal strap

Senseeker is very happy with the results of this project as we now have a test Dewar capable of testing irises of varying size in the future. The testing done by the students also gave us valuable insight into how to modify typical iris diaphragm mechanisms to adapt them to the demands of cryogenic operation. Senseeker will continue to develop this device and plans to integrate it into its STU product line. We look forward to future projects with the UCSB Capstone Program and appreciate the support of the UCSB faculty.

About Senseeker Engineering

Senseeker is a US owned transducer IC and cryogenic test solutions company that specializes in the design of state-of-the-art digital imaging sensors, cryogenic test equipment, electronics and software. Senseeker's products and IP enable FPA developers to produce world class infrared image sensing solutions. Read more at