A harried airline passenger juggling luggage, a laptop and a plastic liquids bag would be forgiven for not noticing an imposing new machine which has been put in place at Heathrow security checkpoints. But this technology could soon end the headache of travellers being limited to 100ml containers of deodorants, drinks and shampoo in carry-on luggage.
Using a scanner from Cobalt Light Systems, security staff at Heathrow and 64 other airports around Europe can analyse fluids in glass or plastic containers of up to three litres without opening them.
The intricate system, which uses lasers to obtain a “fingerprint” of the liquid, powder or gel behind the packaging, has been hailed as an important development in the timetable to phase out the hand-baggage ban on liquids by January 2016. Airline passengers are prohibited from carrying liquids in bottles larger than 100ml – a rule brought in followingthe failed terrorist bomb plot of 2006.
The Oxfordshire-based company believes that the technology behind the scanners, which is also used in the pharmaceutical industry, will extend far beyond airport security. Possible uses range from identifying counterfeit alcohol to detecting osteoporosis.
“This company is not an aviation security company or a pharmaceutical company but there is this technology that can identify chemicals behind barriers and that barrier might be skin or flesh,” says chief executive Paul Loeffen.
“It might be plastic because you are looking at something that is contained in a plastic or glass bottle. It might be paper packaging because you are interested in something which has been sent through the post. All of a sudden there is an enormous range of applications that are not being addressed by another technology.”
The technology used by Cobalt is underpinned by the work of physicist CV Raman, who won the Nobel prize in 1930. The Indian scientist found that when light is shone on a material, a tiny part of that light is altered in its wavelength. This alteration helps identify the material by giving it a molecular fingerprint.
The crucial advance in the development of the Cobalt technology came in 2004. Professor Pavel Matousek and his collaborators at the Rutherford Appleton laboratory, one of the national research laboratories run by the government-backed Science and Technology Facilities Council, had a breakthrough which meant that liquids and other materials behind barriers like glass, paper and ceramics could be identified.
By shining a laser in a number of places on a container with materials inside, a small amount of light gets through. Then the readings from both the container, and the liquid or gel within that receptacle, are taken. Software then separates the two readings, leaving the fingerprint for the liquid.
“You are interested in what is inside but you have this barrier. We shine a laser on to the sack [for example]. It is the case that some of that light does get through even though it looks quite opaque to our eye,” says Loeffen.
“We make the light enter in a number of positions and we look at how that light propagates through the powder or liquid or gel or whatever. We end up with a number of measurements where we have both the container and the contents in this signal.
“With our method of measuring in a number of different places and comparing the signals and doing a lot of software processing, we can end up with a spectrum of the contents as if there was no container.”
The technology can identify solids, gels and powders as well as liquids in seconds based on their chemical composition, according to Loeffen.
The initial products made to commercialise the machinery were for the pharmaceutical industry. Using a handheld device, bags of materials can be checked when they are delivered to ensure they contain what the labels say are in them, cutting down on the need to open up sacks and take time-consuming samples. This in turn speeds up production, Loeffen says. Another machine analyses the amount of drugs present in tablets which have just been produced.
Of the 550 airports in Europe, 65 including Heathrow and Gatwick now use the Insight100, a £40,000 machine with a sliding door and a simple screen which tells if a bottle of liquids contains any components on a list of “threat” materials.
The technology has resulted in significant growth at the company. In the last financial year it reported £12m in turnover – a “very profitable” period, according to Loeffen. Last July, the company and its explosive detection system won the MacRobert award, a prestigious prize given by the Royal Academy of Engineering for innovation in British engineering, beating competition from Rolls Royce in the process.
Other industries that could benefit from Cobalt’s work include medicine and the military, said Loeffen, with the company examining how to reduce the size of the technology to a handheld device.
“Being able to detect chemicals behind barriers is useful in areas like counterfeit … somebody puts cheap alcohol into expensive bottles, we can tell the difference [between] cheap alcohol and the branded alcohol or counterfeit pharmaceuticals. There are applications in customs, we have got a lot of interest in terms of in-bound packages. Things like legal highs, narcotics – is it what it declares to be inside the package?” he said.
“Law enforcement – we are looking at narcotics or controlled substances which may be in a bag or a plastic tub. You don’t really want to open the bottle because of contamination, maybe it is toxic or maybe just because you are damaging evidence or for privacy. There is an interest there.”
Research is being carried out with academics at University College London to examine whether the technology can be used for the early diagnosis of diseases such as osteoarthritis and osteoporosis by using the non-invasive screening of an area where the bone is close to the skin, such as the knuckle. Another project at Exeter University is looking at whether breast tumours can be identified as being benign or malignant without the need for a biopsy.
Amongst the possible uses for the Cobalt technology is estimating the age of blood, according to Paul Loeffen. At present, blood packaged in hermetically sealed bags is typically thrown away after a month as it ages, he said. However, just a fraction of that blood has gone off, which results in a large amount of useable blood being destroyed. Loeffen says the blood could be held for months longer if the laser technology can identify a chemical change within the blood signalling its quality without opening the seal, he said. This in turn would result in an increase in the volume of blood stocked in blood banks.