Interview with Scott Courts, Applications Scientist at Lake Shore

Scott CourtsDr. Scott Courts is an Applications Scientist at Lake Shore. He received his BS in Physics from Marshall University and his PhD in Physics from The Ohio State University. He has been at Lake Shore since 1989.

Q: How were you first introduced to Lake Shore and what drew you to the company?
A: In the Physics department at OSU, you need to do basic research in order to get your PhD, and part of the research that I performed involved making liquid helium flow through tiny capillary tubes then measuring the temperature difference from one end of the tubes to the other. I used some of Lake Shore’s equipment when doing that work, which was my first introduction to the company. When I finished by PhD, one of the things that I knew I really wanted in a job was to feel like I was doing something practical and beneficial – building and designing something that people are actually going to use. That was one of the very attractive things about working at Lake Shore, that I would be working in an R&D division of a company that was a manufacturing business.

I started out in the Sensors R&D division when there were only about 75 employees, so any one person needed to do multiple jobs. There would be days when I would come in and be physically building sensors, other days I would test sensors, everyone was required to wear multiple hats. This allowed me to interact with many of our customers and participate in tradeshows, all of which was very appealing to me.

Q: What are your current primary job responsibilities?
A: When I started, I was the person getting the calls from customers who had sensor questions, even while working on the product design and development team. I still spend a lot of time acting as a liaison between customers with special research or product needs and the manufacturing teams, particularly our aerospace customers. These customers need temperature sensors that are able to survive in unusual and extreme conditions. I work with these companies to develop a testing protocol, help out as the tests are performed, and then often go over the results with the customer as well. Sometimes we must additionally perform special testing, such as irradiation of sensors and vibration testing, to make sure that the products will stand up to the harsh conditions of the launch and space. We have sensors on virtually all the major space projects right now, such as the Mars Curiosity rover and the James Webb space telescope, so making sure that the products perform exactly as they are supposed to is vital.

I also work with the manufacturing group to help improve processes and capabilities. Over the past fifteen years I’ve had a lot of interaction with our calibration facility, to help determine what types of equipment we need, and how to define the equipment we need, in order to complete some of the very low-temperature tests that we need to perform on our sensors. I am also the radiation safety officer, so I perform radiation training sessions, which, among other things, involves teaching people not to eat the radiation sources.

Q: What achievements are you most proud of during your time at Lake Shore?
A: I was on the team that helped develop the Cernox cryogenic temperature sensor, and performed the radiation testing for it, and that has turned out to be really the definitive cryogenic sensor. I’d say that it is used by probably 90% of the people working at temperatures below 20K, and I can’t think of a cryogenic application that I wouldn’t suggest the Cernox sensor for. We actually have about 10,000 of them monitoring the temperature of the superconducting magnets in the Large Hadron Collider, and it’s definitely exciting to be involved in such an important project.

I also very much respect Lake Shore’s commitment to science education, and the efforts we make to encourage scientific interest in the kids in our community. With Lake Shore’s support, I go to one of the local elementary schools and do physics presentations for the students, which is great. It’s so much fun to do demonstrations for these kids, because they are still at an age where they can be amazed by something, and I love that at Lake Shore I have the chance to help them experience that.

Q: What projects or initiatives are you currently working on?
A: I mentioned before how when we work with the aerospace customers they often have very high testing requirements, so we work with them to develop a protocol that meets those needs. This can, as you might expect, take a lot of time for each new company, and even for each new project within one company. We’ve been working with NASA to develop a standard testing procedure for cryogenic temperature sensors, which may even be included in the latest revision of their Instructions for EEE (electrical, electronic and electromechanical) Parts Selection, Screening, Qualification and Derating. If we can come up with a specification that NASA agrees to, then there’s no doubt in my mind that all the other aerospace companies would agree to it as well. This would allow us begin producing these sensors in bulk, take all the data, maintain traceability, and perform all the testing, and then make these aerospace-qualified sensors available off the shelf. This would mean that rather than having a lead time of close to a year, customers could have these products within a few weeks.

Q: What developments in cryogenics research do you expect to see coming up, and how do you think they will influence Lake Shore?
A: Due to the success that CERN (the Center for European Nuclear Research) has had in the past few years, I see a lot of great opportunities continuing to develop in that branch of research. Even though CERN doesn’t appear on the surface to involve cryogenics, in reality they have probably the largest cryogenics facility in the world at this point, so that is definitely a positive influence for us. Another area of great interest is the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) project, which is an international effort to create a controlled fusion process, which presents lots of very interesting cryogenic and magnetics challenges which will need to be solved. We are actually supplying a large number of sensors to the ITER project, so I look forward to seeing what comes out of that.

Going back to aerospace, in the past few years there have been a number of space exploration projects giving us good results, which have a very wide interest and appeal even to non-scientists. I expect to continue to see lots of great opportunities and developments in this area over the coming years.

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