The man who gets under your skin

Professor Pavel Matousek has an intriguing story to tell. Back in 2004 he and his collaborators at STFC’s Central Laser Facility stumbled across a technique for analysing the chemical make-up of materials. Four years later Pavel co-founded a company called Cobalt Light Systems to exploit applications of the technique, known as Spatially Offset Raman Spectroscopy (SORS), for noble purposes. Cobalt has won a Queen’s Award for Enterprise and its innovative technologies can be found on pharmaceutical production lines and in airports around the world. What’s more, SORS may one day save lives. Pavel states:

“I am very excited about what I do and driven to answer questions in front of me, unravel complex problems and deliver something useful to society where I can.”

Pavel Matousek at work with a colleague from Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche in Italy at STFC Central Laser Facility.
(Credit: STFC)

Czech-out

Pavel became fascinated by the stars and Universe while growing up in the Czech Republic. He joined an astronomy society at secondary school and it became clear he wanted to study physics. He got very interested in laser physics during his MSc at the Czech Technical University (CTU) in Prague. After joining Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) as a research associate in 1991, he went on to complete his PhD in ultra-fast Raman Spectroscopy, which was also awarded by CTU.

Scratching the surface

Cobalt Light Systems’ RapID device verifying pharmaceutical materials through unopened sacks.
(Credit: Cobalt Light Systems)

Raman Spectroscopy is central to Pavel’s story. It is a technique that involves shining a laser beam at the surface of a material and observing the colour of light scattered from the point of illumination. This typically provides information about the chemical composition of the material’s surface. C.V. Raman observed the effect in 1928 and subsequently won a Nobel Prize.

Probing deeper

It was generally assumed that a Raman signal could only be detected at the illumination point. However, Pavel and his collaborators discovered that some photons drift sideways through the material and emerge adjacent to the illumination point. As these photons have interacted with molecules deeper inside the medium, they provide information about internal chemical make-up. And the further you move away from the illumination point, the deeper you see into the medium. This is the SORS technique. Pavel notes that:

“SORS involves probing at one location and detecting at another. Our minds, and those of others, were constrained by our perception of how the Raman Spectroscopy process worked but once we made this serendipitous discovery, we quickly realised it had potential major applications. We swiftly filed eight patents, which became the basis of our company Cobalt Light Systems.”

First app

Pavel and his collaborators immediately realised that SORS could determine the chemical make-up of substances by non-destructive means, which could have applications in bio-medicine, chemistry, security, forensics, heritage, and beyond. But first they focused on pharmaceuticals and developed novel ways for analysing the chemical make-up of manufactured drugs. Pavel explains:

“Before pharmaceutical companies circulate products, they batch test them. This is usually a destructive process where, for example, 20/30 tablets are randomly chosen, dissolved and chemically tested. Assumptions are then made that the entire batch is safe and can be released for sale. SORS offers a very different approach, where tablets can be scanned rapidly and non-invasively. This technology is faster, allows more stock to be checked and can be built into a production line.”

A Cobalt Light Systems airport security scanner
(Credit: Cobalt Light Systems)

Safer skies

The handheld Resolve device is able to identify chemicals through opaque plastics
(Credit: Cobalt Light Systems)

Airport security scanners represent the second generation of technology developed by Cobalt. They are used to scan traveller essentials, such as medicines or baby milk in bottles without opening them, and compare their chemical make-up to a database of explosive substances and their precursors. Suspicious substances are automatically identified and flagged. The technology avoids passengers having to drink liquids (e.g. baby milk) in front of security officers to prove they are not dangerous, which is safer and more hygienic. To date, there are around 400 operational units in 70 airports across Europe and Asia – Heathrow alone has over 80. The technology has also contributed to new legislation, and may lead to a relaxation of the restriction on taking liquids on board a plane.

Handy

Airport scanners are currently the size of a microwave oven but Cobalt has recently launched a SORS handheld device. This will have applications, for example, for first responder teams called to spillages of unknown substances, fire fighters attending chemical fires and border control forces looking for narcotics.

Awards galore

Cobalt has received a multitude of awards, including the Queen's Award for Enterprise 2015 in the category of International Trade, and the 2014 Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award, the UK’s most prestigious prize for innovation in engineering.

Pavel and his Cobalt Light System colleagues accept the 2014 Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award.
(Credit: Cobalt Light Systems)

The facilitator

Pavel stresses the importance of STFC to his journey:

“My story illustrates the national and international importance of STFC. If its determination to deliver impact on science was absent, the chain from a fundamental discovery to Cobalt Light Systems’ products would have been broken. STFC responded appropriately at every stage. And this is just one example of how STFC contributes to the UK’s know-how economy.”

Medical motives

Pavel is now focused on using SORS to develop novel non-invasive medical screening techniques. These include diagnosing bone disease such as osteoporosis (with Professors Anthony Parker of STFC and Allen Goodship of UCL) and non-invasive breast cancer screening (with Professor Nicholas Stone of Exeter University).

Patient benefits could be enormous. Current diagnosis techniques for osteoporosis are around 60-70% accurate as they sense only mineral content. SORS on the other hand has a high specificity for mineral and collagen content – both of which determine bone strength – and so holds considerable promise for providing improved diagnostic accuracy. SORS could also be used to classify breast or prostate tumours as malignant or benign without needle biopsy. This would reduce patient stress and save medical provider costs. However, Pavel notes:

“Medical problems are challenging as the human body is complex and variable. These applications are probably still seven to ten years away”.

SORS in operation at an airport
(Credit: Cobalt Light Systems)

You ain’t seen nothing yet...

Pavel has amassed some remarkable achievements during his 25-year career at RAL and one suspects there are plenty more to come:

“As you push the boundaries of technology and make new discoveries, the end goal always changes. This is the nice thing about science.”

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000