Revealing hidden secrets in closed containers

It’s a potential game-changer – the ability to ‘see’ inside bottles and bags, regardless of opacity, and instantly identify exactly what they contain. From detecting dangerous liquids in airline luggage to verifying the quality of pharmaceutical products, the positive impacts extend from industry into the heart of everyday life. Lower costs, faster processes, better safeguards for the public: these are just a few key benefits of a capability that, thanks to innovative laser applications developed by STFC spin-out Cobalt Light Systems, is now a reality.

Lasers lighting the way

Cobalt Light Systems has taken a pioneering breakthrough at STFC’s Central Laser Facility CLF) and transformed it into a suite of revolutionary solutions to pressing real-world problems. The starting point was the well-known ‘Raman effect’, which makes it possible to determine a substance’s precise chemical composition by striking it with a laser beam and measuring the wavelength of the light scattered by the molecules. In 2004, working with STFC colleagues, Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) and the University of Michigan, Professor Pavel Matousek took this a step further by inventing and patenting a technique that could detect the Raman ‘signatures’ of individual layers beneath the surface of a substance. SORS (Spatially Offset Raman Spectroscopy), together with its associate technology TRS (Transmission Raman Spectroscopy) provided the platform for Cobalt Light Systems and underpinned the company’s mission to develop a new generation of rapid non-invasive analytical and diagnostic devices.

Explosives exposed

left-hand quote markThis new laser method enabled Cobalt to develop and engineer the new scanner that is now deployed in 8 out of the 10 largest airports in Europe, making air travel safer for all of us – and other exciting applications are still looming on the horizon.right-hand quote mark

Pavel Matousek,
Chief Scientific Officer, Cobalt Light Systems

In 2006, a foiled terrorist bomb plot sparked the introduction of an immediate ban on liquids and gels carried in air travellers’ hand luggage. Airlines, airports and passengers all shouldered the burden of the resulting disruption and expense – at Heathrow alone, 2000 tonnes of confiscated containers require disposal every year. Now, Cobalt’s Insight100 screening machine is helping to reduce the queues and confusion. Already installed at over 65 EU airports, including Heathrow and Gatwick, this ground-breaking device accurately analyses liquids and gels contained in non-metallic containers without having to open them. The container is simply placed inside the machine and the contents’ Raman signature is automatically cross-checked against a data library in a matter of seconds; if a suspect substance is detected, the operator is alerted. Insight100’s extraordinary capabilities contribute to the planned phased withdrawal of the EU ban, which is now in its first phase. It is perhaps this tangible impact that made Cobalt stand out against engineering giant Rolls Royce to receive the 2014 Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award, the UK’s most prestigious engineering prize. The judges identified the promise of “a single innovation that could improve the lives of millions in a variety of ways” as the distinguishing feature to secure Cobalt’s win during a competitive year.

Effective cures for doubt

Insight100 was launched in 2012, yet it was two years earlier that Cobalt’s first commercial product went to market. Targeting solids rather than liquids, TRS100 aids pharmaceutical quality control by using lasers to penetrate shells and coatings and non-destructively assess the content uniformity of tablets and capsules at a rate of hundreds per minute. RapID, a handheld device launched in 2013, is equally effective in detecting problems and eliminating doubt, enabling pharmaceutical materials to be verified through unopened sacks and coloured bottles – and eliminating the need for time-hungry sampling procedures.

Collectively, Cobalt’s products are delivering remarkable improvements in the speed and accuracy with which chemical composition can be established without the need to touch a substance. Future potential applications under investigation at STFC extend to non-invasive breast cancer screening (in partnership with Exeter University), non-invasive bone disease diagnosis (in partnership with University College London), counterfeit goods detection and beyond – with the promise of new devices and further valuable impacts for economy and society in the years ahead.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) manages a variety of large public science research facilities in the UK, putting it at the heart of global technology innovation. To maximise the impact of new technologies coming out of its facilities, STFC strategically commercialises promising technologies that have the potential to boost the UK economy.

This involves licensing out technologies or intellectual property (IP) into existing companies in well-established markets, or supporting the creation of a spin-out company for technologies with multiple applications or those which require further intensive R&D.

STFC has set up spin-out companies operating in a variety of market sectors including aerospace engineering, cleantech, security and defence, regenerative medicine and diagnostics. Once a company has been set up, STFC often supports these early stage SMEs via its incubation programmes, providing guidance on raising external investment and forming connections with campus, local and international business networks and partners.

Cobalt Light Systems Ltd is a spin-out company established in 2008 to exploit a new Raman spectroscopy technology developed at STFC’s Central Laser Facility in practical applications. Initially based alongside STFC at the Harwell Campus campus, the company subsequently moved to its current, larger headquarters only four miles away at Milton Park. The underlying technology invented at STFC is exclusive to Cobalt. The company, which has previously won an Institute of Engineering and Technology Innovation Award, is backed by three Venture Capital Funds: the Oxford Technology Enterprise Capital Fund, the Rainbow Seed Fund and NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts).

Read the full Case Study

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000