Local entrepreneurs looking to develop ‘Superman vision’ camera

When most people hit retirement age, they think about what they’ll do when their careers wind down — maybe start a vegetable garden, travel more, or pick up a new hobby.

Apparently, Dennis Bahr is not “most people.” At the age of 68, he got his Ph.D., and then set out to make his mark on the business world.

Several years ago, Bahr, 70, lost his wife to cancer. It was the kind of traumatic life event that would have prompted many people to withdraw from the world, but Bahr wasn’t done exploring.

“We’re trying to get some software for [the Milwaukee Institute’s computer] so we can do a really good model, and our thought is that with this model, we can take it to the government and say, ‘Look, we’ve got a program that works mathematically.’” — Dennis Bahr, Helionx

“It took me a year to get going, but I finally said, ‘Gosh, you’ve got to do something. You can’t just sit and mope like a lot of people do,’” said Bahr.

So nearly 40 years after he’d completed his master’s in electrical engineering, Bahr set out to complete a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at the UW-Madison.

That led him to a course in fluid dynamics.

“Basically it’s vacuum systems, how to create a big vacuum system so you can build an accelerator,” said Bahr. “The pumps, the valves, the tubing, all of that. It’s one of the only courses I’ve ever seen on it, and they’ve got a guy at the ‘U’ who’s really good at this, and every five years he teaches the course. I just happened to be around when he was teaching it one semester, and I said, ‘I want to take that.’”

That little bolt of kismet led him to his current pursuit.

Bahr and his business partner, John Peterman, are currently working on a particle accelerator that could have important applications in security, manufacturing and — perhaps down the road — medical imaging.

“The idea is that you produce neutrons,” said Bahr, whose company, Helionx, currently employs just himself and Peterman. “And neutrons themselves can be used for a lot of things, including cameras, and that’s where we’re heading — a very small, powerful camera to take pictures, because neutrons can see through metal and hydrogen stops them. You can see plastic explosives.”

Bahr’s idea was impressive enough to catch the eye of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and the Milwaukee Institute, which recently named Helionx and Madison’s Metamodeling Analytics winners of their 2014 Computational Science Challenge Grants. Both companies received $50,000 and will have access to the Milwaukee Institute’s high-performance computing capabilities, which they’ll use to advance their research.

Bahr says that public funding for the kind of work he and Peterman are doing is essentially nonexistent because all the government’s money is tied up in other, related research, leaving nothing for new approaches. With the Milwaukee Institute’s help, however, Bahr is hopeful that he can provide proof of concept to interested parties.

“We’re trying to get some software for [the Milwaukee Institute’s computer] so we can do a really good model, and our thought is that with this model, we can take it to the government and say, ‘Look, we’ve got a program that works mathematically.’ We have modeled it ourselves, but these higher-powered tools are much more definitive.”

Bahr says that his camera is innovative because of its ability to “pulse” and take a quick freeze-frame picture of its subject.

“What we’re doing is we’re going to produce a really high-energy pulse of these neutrons,” said Bahr. “So as something’s moving, let’s say on a conveyer belt, it’s basically like a flash camera. It’s like looking at something on an assembly line with a camera that’s actually got a flash on it, and the thing about the flash is it’ll freeze it, and we think you’ll get a much better picture.”

If perfected, the technology would allow people to examine mortar shells for cracks or products on assembly lines for flaws. It could also be useful in medical imaging, because it uses a non-ionizing material and wouldn’t burn patients like an X-ray can.

In addition, by relying on short pulses, it would conserve energy.

“Only during the pulse is it using energy. Otherwise it’s pretty much idling,” said Bahr. “And according to the calculations I did, it will produce the equivalent of a 100-nanonsecond pulse of about 5 megawatts. If you average that out over time, that’s not a big power consumption.”

For Peter Qian, founder of Metamodeling Analytics and a professor in the UW-Madison Department of Statistics, the grant and the Milwaukee Institute’s high-performance computing resources will offer his company a chance to continue its rapid growth.

“We’re going to work with [the Milwaukee Institute] to create an example to demonstrate the advantage of our technology,” said Qian.



Metamodeling Analytics is a young startup with just three employees, all of whom were recruited earlier this year. The company is working on software to conduct simulation analytics, which allow companies in a wide range of industries to simulate various processes. The software has applications in auto manufacturing, aerospace, chemicals, and semiconducting, to name just a few.

Through simulation analytics, companies could speed up engine or aircraft design, or hone other industrial processes.

“By pushing our company forward, I want to promote the market for simulation analytics in Madison,” said Qian.

Also receiving grants were Dedicated Computing, Waukesha, and H20score, Microbe Detectives, and Oilgear, all of Milwaukee.

According to a WEDC press release, the Milwaukee Institute’s high-performance computing cluster is the largest publicly accessible supercomputing resource of its kind in the state, and the grant program is expected to promote high-tech job growth by promoting excellence in applied computational science.

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