The company behind a laser-based airport security system that could end the ban on carrying liquids on planes has won “the Oscars of engineering”.
Oxfordshire-based Cobalt Light Systems was presented with the Royal Academy of Engineering’s MacRobert Award last night by Princes Anne, beating off competition from engineering giant Rolls-Royce and QinetiQ spin-out OptaSense.
The 40-strong firm, formed as a spin-out from the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, has pioneered a technique that uses laser spectroscopy to identify the chemical composition of materials through a range of barriers such as glass, plastic and even skin.
The firm’s flagship device is a range of airport security scanners launched earlier this year that can identify the chemical make-up of bottled liquids without opening them, but their technology also has applications in narcotics and counterfeit detection and cancer and bone disease diagnostics.
“The MacRobert Award is like the Oscars of engineering and really the most prestigious award you can win,” said CEO Paul Loeffen. “It’s really a bit like a coming of age for our company, a recognition that what we’ve been doing the last couple of years is really quite good.
“And for a company of our size, it sounds like a cliché, but it really is down to the people who work here and something like this is a real shot in the arm for people. People are involved in this kind of engineering and science company because they like the technology and they like what we are doing so this kind of high profile award really matter to people.”
The company’s technology is based on Raman spectroscopy, a type of laser spectroscopy first pioneered in the early 21st Century, which allows researchers to analyse the surface of a material by shining a laser on it and measuring the way the laser interacts with it.
While traditional Raman spectroscopy is capable of revealing information about materials beneath the surface of a translucent barrier, Loeffen uses the analogy that it is impossible to see the stars in the sky during the day due to the much stronger source of light from the Sun – the signal from the surface obscures any useful signal from the material behind the barrier.
The patented system developed by Cobalt, which it refers to as spatially offset Raman spectroscopy (SORS), overcomes this problem through an experimental which takes a number of measurements at different positions with specific incident angles, before comparing measurements and using sophisticated algorithms to identify and block the signal from the surface material.
The firm, which was founded in 2008, initially used this technique to develop a machine for pharmaceutical companies to verify the contents and quality of medicines, before developing their Insight100 system for airports that can analyse bottles of up to three litres, and compare them to a library of known threats without having to open them.
The device has been independently tested and approved by regulator European Civil Aviation Conference and installed in 65 major European airports to date, including Heathrow and Gatwick.
But according to Loeffen, the system is ‘agnostic’ about what it is used for and could also be adapted for detecting concealed narcotics and even ascertaining whether currency has been counterfeited.
"The exciting thing about Cobalt is that it has a platform that has many apps,” he added. “The ability to analyse the chemical composition of something you can’t see because its concealed behind a barrier is quite a translatable capability.”
The firm has sold one of its machines to University College London, which is carrying out pre-clinical trials to assess whether the technique can be used to detect subtle changes in the chemical composition of bones before the symptoms of bone diseases like osteoporosis manifest themselves.
Another study in conjunction with the University of Exeter is investigating whether the system can be used to detect the chemical composition of breast tissue in the ‘shadows’ identified by mammograms on the spot, removing the need to wait for the results of biopsies.
“You would be able to diagnose very quickly, at the time of a mammogram, whether the lump that has appeared on the mammogram is benign or malignant. As you can see that would be a huge breakthrough in women’s health,” said Loeffen.
John Robinson, chair of the MacRobert Award judging panel, said: “The promise of this single fundamental innovation to improve the lives of millions of people in such a variety of ways meant Cobalt stood out in what has been a particularly competitive year for the MacRobert Award.
“Beyond the outstanding technical innovation itself, Cobalt also captured the judges' attention with its hearty ambition. A fast-growing yet humble SME, it is a shining example of the technology transfer process from UK research labs into a successful commercial enterprise.”