Local, Digital and Growth-Oriented
Company becomes leader in the global oil-and-gas industry
February 09, 2012— Edmonton, Alberta
Boreal Laser Inc.
With help from the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP), Boreal Laser Inc. transformed itself into a major player in the global oil-and-gas industry
Boreal Laser Inc., a company whose laser-based trace gas analyzers detect hazardous and toxic gases in various applications, went through an extraordinary process to find a firm to manufacture one of its essential parts—and in doing so, spawned a local community of suppliers that are on the road to becoming success stories themselves.
This odyssey in business development was led by NRC-IRAP Industrial Technology Advisor (ITA) Bob Arnold who, from 2006 to 2010, helped Boreal secure NRC-IRAP financial contributions for five research and development (R&D) projects.
Boreal has been around since 1989, when it specialized in developing laser systems for the Defense Research Establishment. When that work dried up in the mid-1990s, the firm decided to adapt its technology to the oil and gas market, and set itself up as a service company that detected and measured methane emissions.
But events in the late 1990s set the firm on a different path. A California oil-and-gas enterprise heard about Boreal and repeatedly insisted on buying its gas-detection safety equipment. Boreal ramped itself up, producing four systems for that customer in 1997. “We were put in the position of becoming a manufacturing company,” says Bauer. “The rest is history.”
Boreal Laser’s laser-based GasFinders.
Today, Boreal’s laser-based GasFinders can detect hydrogen fluoride, hydrogen chloride, hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, methane, carbon dioxide, hydrogen cyanide, ethylene and acetylene, and are used in diverse environments, from aluminum smelters to oil refineries to petrochemical plants.
From analogue to digital
When Arnold became involved with Boreal in 2006, the company hoped to gain flexibility, volume capability and cost reductions by changing its electronics from primarily analogue to a digital platform.
With that accomplished, Arnold quickly moved on to the next step: changing the type of laser chip used in the firm’s gas detectors. The plan was to replace the pricey telecom-grade laser sources with custom ones better suited to measuring fugitive gas emissions. Arnold connected Boreal with the NRC Institute for Microstructural Sciences (NRC-IMS) to explore the potential of making lasers from gallium antimonite.
The mission was successful, but there was still a major challenge to address. A laser “chip” is about the size of a grain of sand, and requires sophisticated packaging to protect its integrity. While the NRC-IMS could produce the chips, it could not produce the package—nor, seemingly, could any Canadian company. Arnold worked with the Alberta Centre for Advanced MicroNano Packaging (ACAMP) to create a laser packaging platform based not just on Boreal’s needs, but on those of several other Alberta companies operating in different industries.
ACAMP secured help from a world-class laser packaging expert who agreed to design the line, and to train and mentor local experts. Arnold and ACAMP soon realized that a firm would be needed to manage and verify the overall technology. Edmonton-based Norcada seized that opportunity. NRC-IRAP facilitated the project design and mentored Norcada on product assurance.
“Our ITA, Bob Arnold, pushed us to evaluate whether or not the way we were doing things was really the best. His coaching got us moving and buoyed us.”
Jim Bauer, chief operating officer, Boreal Laser Inc.
All told, Arnold convinced half a dozen companies to form a consortium to make the needed technology in Edmonton. “If you were to reverse engineer Boreal,” says Arnold, “you would find nearly 15 companies inside their supply chain, and most were introduced by NRC-IRAP.”
NRC-IRAP assistance has allowed Boreal to:
- Move from an analogue to a digital platform, gaining flexibility and profits.
- Double its sales.
- Establish clients in 45 countries.
- Grow from seven employees to 15.
- Develop a relationship with ExxonMobil, an opportunity that represents a total estimated value of more than $3.5 million.
- Create a community of suppliers with the expertise to develop laser technology for other companies.
Boreal is poised for its next growth phase, and remains involved in NRC-IRAP-funded research and development.
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