It’s a potential game-changer – the technology to ‘see’ inside bottles and bags, regardless of opacity, and instantly identify exactly what they contain.
Thanks to a pioneering breakthrough at STFC’s Central Laser Facility (CLF) at RAL, that technology is now reality – and already in use at over 65 airports worldwide. 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.
The real-world applications earned the new technology the 2014 Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award, the UK’s most prestigious engineering prize.
The ‘Raman effect’ 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, STFC researchers, Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) and Professor Pavel Matousek took this a step further by inventing and patenting a technique thanks to their work at the Central Laser Facility. They now had a way to detect the Raman ‘signatures’ of individual layers beneath the surface of a substance.
This breakthrough led to the formation of a STFC spin off company - Cobalt Light Systems. It has since transformed the technology into a new generation of rapid non-invasive analytical and diagnostic devices.
The most high profile Cobalt product is making a major impact on air passengers and their safety. The liquids ban on flights since 2006 has led to major disruption and expense. 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 MacDonald Award judges highlighted the promise of “a single innovation that could improve the lives of millions in a variety of ways” in awarded their prize to Cobalt. Potential applications under investigation at STFC extend to non-invasive breast cancer screening, non-invasive bone disease diagnosis, counterfeit goods detection and more – with the promise of new devices and further impacts in the years ahead.