Science

The sunshine boys

THOMAS HOPKINS September 4 1978
Science

The sunshine boys

THOMAS HOPKINS September 4 1978

The sunshine boys

Science

In the back of a cramped building in Vancouver’s grimy East End, amidst the thin hum of transformers and the tangy smell of electronic circuitry, is the heart of Vortek Industries. It’s an appropriately Buck Rogerish name for a fledgling Canadian company that has produced a lamp that stands to revolutionize the outdoor lighting industry. Vortek and its superlamp went public in July for a select group of reporters and industry representatives, flooding the entire surface area of the University of British Columbia’s Thunderbird Stadium with a controlled beam of near-daylight from a single lamp. And the company recently shipped one of its $70,000 prototypes to Toronto where it has been lighting up the 50-by-400-foot facade of a building at the Canadian National Exhibition to the general amazement of passersby.

Formed three years ago by four young UBC physicists—David Camm, Robert Kerr, Gary Albach and Steven Richards— Vortek is living disproof of the saw that Canadian research and development rates parity with Botswana’s. Vortek’s lamp, which operates at a surface temperature of 12,000°C—twice the heat of the sun’s surface—and can do the work of 125 of the largest normal outdoor lamps, was spawned as a side project while the four worked at UBC’s Plasma Physics Group in the early ’70s. Their breakthrough was not in the light source—science has long known how to use electrical discharges from argon and other gases to create an artificial sun—but in how to put it to work. “The problem with previous experiments,”

says Camm, “was that the high temperatures generated in the glass tubing by the gas discharges always destroyed the tubes.” In 1973, he and the others substituted one of the walls of the standard tube with a thin wall of spinning water recycled 50 times a second and pumped through the tube quickly enough to cool it without evaporating. Discreet tests at Thunderbird Stadium confirmed that an unlikelylooking 1,500-pound lamp housed in a blue sheet-metal box the size of a dishwasher and based on these principles actually worked.

In 1975, with UBC holding the patent, the four left the physics department with sole rights to develop and market the lamp. Venture capital from private lenders, however, was not forthcoming. Vortek had to sift through the resources of a jumble of government acronyms such as PRAI (Industrial Research Assistance Program) and FDB (Federal Development Bank) for the research funds and the $251,000 needed to put the company on its feet.

Unsure of their next step, the scientists acknowledge that another group, MPB Industries of Montreal, is developing a lamp of comparable intensity. But so far, Vortek has no American competitors and Westinghouse, Canada’s largest supplier of outdoor lighting, has expressed interest. They see the lamp’s 125-kilowatt beam lighting open pit mines, search and rescue operations and stadiums. Although pleased to be nearing the marketplace, Camm cannot help being mildly bitter about the shabby treatment afforded Vortek by private lenders. Fingering one of the exotic science-fiction fantasy drawings studding the Vortek workshop walls, he recalls wryly, “If we had wanted to open a Pop Shoppe we would have had the money the same afternoon.”

THOMAS HOPKINS