Sensing in a whole new light

16 October 2008

Stratophase, a spinout from the University of Southampton, claims to offer a new solution to measuring the chemical composition of liquids. CE UK spoke to Dr Sam Watts, business development and commercial officer at the Romsey based organisation, about the background behind the sensing technology and its possible industrial uses.

The technology, based around SpectroSens optical sensors, was originally designed for use in the telecomms industry. However, according to Dr Watts, by the time Stratophase split from the University of Southampton in 2003, this market had ‘taken a dive’ and was no longer viable.

Dr Watts explained how the company turned to bio-detection applications: ‘The technology can detect toxins, viruses and bacteria in real time. Based on an optical silicon chip with an integral planar Bragg grating, it uses a fibre-optic cable to transmit a conditioned beam of light to the chip’.

‘When target agents or contaminants are carried in liquid across the surface, tiny changes in sample composition can be detected by very precise and continuous monitoring of the wavelength of light reflected from the sensor. By pre-treating the surface to make it sensitive to certain biological or chemical reactions, it becomes a robust and sensitive biochemical detector.’

The company has experienced success in homeland security and military sectors, developing sensors with key customers and government contracts, in addition to MOD funding for a project to develop bio-threat detection systems.

Stratophase soon realised that there was a whole host of industrial applications the technology could be applied to.

A complete sensing unit, based on the SpectroSens technology, is currently being tested by the University of Applied Sciences at Aschaffenburg, Germany.

Professor Ralf Hellmann, head of the Laboratories for Lasertechnology, Opto-Electronics and Sensors at the University, said: ‘A key advantage of the technology is that it is a purely optical process which relies on changes in the refractive index on the surface of the sensor. This therefore eliminates the usual and costly complication with other technologies of preparing the liquid specimen with fluorescent tags.

‘In addition, it has distinct advantages for commercial sensing over technologies such as SPR (surface plasmon resonance). For example, the silicon surface of the sensor gives access to a far broader range of binding reactions compared to the gold surface used in SPR. Moreover, its use of fibre optics would enable a network of sensors to be built across a production platform with a central point for the analysis of sample readings. With the combination of its high sensitivity, optical transducer and size, the Stratophase sensor has significant potential in applications beyond biotechnology.’

The three-year government-funded research project is primarily focussed on applying the technology to biodiesel applications, which Dr Watts thinks is a great fit.

‘In biodiesel production not only can water contaminate the mix during production but the use of multiple feed stocks, for example oil seed rape and algae, means that continuous process control is very important.’

He added: ‘The biodiesel industry is a young and exiting market that suits the stage Stratophase are at. It is an industry that is willing to experiment with new technologies.’

Dr Watts’ hope is that if the product proves itself in the biodiesel industry it will filer through to other markets.

He suggests pharmaceutical and petrochemical industries will be particularly interested in the intrinsically safe properties of SpectroSens.

‘Using optical signals means the units do not need to be powered and do not require the same kind of safety accreditation other products operating in hazardous areas would have to achieve.’

Pinpointing possible uses in food and beverage and pharmaceutical industries, Dr Watts cited batch testing as an exercise that could be obviated.

‘Companies in these sectors would like to be measuring composition all the time but often don’t know how easily this can be achieved so stick to batch testing,’ he said.

‘Multiple sensors can be networked over large areas and linked to a single readout unit, providing cost-effective multipoint measurements.’

Stratophase is currently looking for partners across numerous industries and expects the product will be rolled out into industrial applications within the next year.

Dr Watts concludes: ‘The technology is there, the biggest challenge now is to educate the market as to its uses.’

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