LOWELL — Deep inside a red-brick 19th-century cotton mill on the banks of the Merrimack River, a company called Performance Indicator LLC is making colorful paints that gleam brightly all night long, and “dynamic camouflage” that can transform its hue to blend into the environment.
Run by former Raytheon executives and Polaroid scientists, 11-year-old Performance Indicator is providing its photoluminescent and color-changing technologies to several major companies, as well as to the US government.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” said Satish Agrawal, chief technology officer at Performance Indicator and a 30-year veteran of Polaroid Corp., where the foundation for some of the color and light technology was first built. “We worked in instant photography . . . We had to learn to do some things other people had no need for.”
Unlike green glow-in-the-dark toys, the company’s illuminating paints glow in an array of colors and require only a bit of light to work.
“Our stuff will glow eight to 10 hours,” said Paul S. Hovsepian, a Raytheon alum and Performance Indicator’s senior vice president of corporate continuity. “You’re saving energy all night long.”
Performance Indicator’s paints are well-suited for marking runways, traffic lanes, and crosswalks, Hovsepian said. They have been used to brighten stairwells and emergency exits in the Chicago Transit Authority subway system and at US Cellular Field, home stadium of the Chicago White Sox. The company estimates that improved lighting at the stadium might cost between $2 million and $3 million, but brightening the stairs and handrails with photoluminescent products cost around $200,000.
Spokeswoman Lambrini Lukidis said the Chicago Transit Authority is still evaluating how the glow-in-the-dark paint performs and how dirt and dust will affect the markings.
“There are no issues with the product itself,” she said. “We’re just looking into whether we’re going to use it in the future.”
Performance Indicator is also offering its paints as energy-efficient alternatives to electric lighting for outdoor billboards. The luminous paints were used to create a Hennessy billboard in New York City, and lit up brilliantly every night without fail, Hovsepian said.
Some of Performance Indicator’s paints, inks, and powders are invisible to the naked eye, perceptible only through night vision goggles. One such powder, which Hovsepian called “pixie dust,” could be used in covert military operations, he said. Soldiers could sprinkle the dust on the ground. This dust would be visible only to soldiers wearing special goggles. If an enemy walked in that area, the dust would stick to their shoes. The soldiers could then follow the “invisible” trail to track the enemy’s movements.
In April, Performance Indicator was awarded a $149,043 contract to do work for the US Special Operations Command, and it has a second contract to produce specialty coatings for the Army.
Inside the company’s 11,000 square feet at the Boott Cotton Mills complex, scientists tested color-changing materials to see how they react to light and other stimuli. In the phosphor lab, physicist Weiyi Jia presided over plastic baggies filled with brightly colored phosphor crumbles, granules, and powders that glowed in vibrant hues.
In a conference room, Performance Indicator products were used to create a portrait of Yoda from “Star Wars”; it casts an eerie glow.
Down the hall, a darkened “demo room” showcases recent prototypes. One table contains a row of glowing light-switch covers decorated with cartoon characters, including Snow White, Kermit the Frog, and Winnie the Pooh. Leaning against the opposite wall is a rectangular piece of fake roadway. The faux pavement is emblazoned with two highway stripes that glow brightly.
In a demonstration of the company’s “dynamic camouflage,” Hovsepian and Lee Silvestre aimed a powerful lamp at a dropcloth of greenish-brown fabric. As the light bulb slowly grew brighter, simulating how the rising sun would appear on a clear morning, “leaves” in the camouflage pattern subtly changed color and shade. Silvestre said this type of chameleon-like camouflage could be useful for soldiers, recreational hunters, and military vehicles, and could also be used in fashion apparel, footwear, hair dye, and cosmetics.
Performance Indicator is one player in the high-tech business of color change and photoluminescence. In New Zealand, a company called GloTech International produces pigments and paints that are used in glow-in-the-dark countertops, sinks, and swimming pools. Virginia-based Defense Holdings Inc., has its own line of photoluminescent paints and glow-in-the-dark exit signs and safety markings for buildings and vehicles. Matsui International Company Inc. in California makes color-changing paints and inks, and a firm called Trippin’ Paint LLC in Magnolia, Texas, provides custom color-changing paint jobs for motorcycles and cars.
Performance Indicator was originally founded by Robert Winskowicz and Robb J. Osinski as a maker of golf balls that turned gray if they got waterlogged. MIT Professor Robert Langer suggested to them that the color-changing technology had “far broader implications.”
“They took that to heart, and I think over the past years they have done a great job expanding it into many new applications,” said Langer.
Performance Indicator generated $2.5 million in revenue in 2011, has 29 employees, and recently launched a joint venture with large defense contractor Day & Zimmermann to operate a phosphor manufacturing facility in Texas.
The company plans to expand its Massachusetts headquarters to a 45,000-square-foot space to make room for more research and development and manufacturing.
“The big picture is that PI is doing some amazing science that is going into products produced by Fortune 100 companies,” wrote MIT professor Paula T. Hammond, a member of Performance Indicator’s advisory board, in an e-mail. “Soon we will be seeing them in everything from cars to cameras to even clothing.”