Start up creates high-precision biological, chemical detector

Tuesday, April 13, 2010 @ 03:04 PM gHale


A high-precision detector, a planar array infrared spectrograph, can now identify biological and chemical agents in solids, liquids, and gases present at low levels, in less than a second.

The new technology holds promise in multiple applications, ranging from the early detection of diseases, to monitoring for chemical weapons and environmental pollutants, to enhancing quality-control efforts in manufacturing processes, said officials at PAIR Technologies, a start-up company established by University of Delaware researchers and a former DuPont scientist.

John Rabolt, the Karl W. and Renate Böer Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at UD, and his students invented and patented the technology in 2001.

Rabolt and Bruce Chase, who just retired from DuPont as a research chemist, founded the company in 2005.

Their partners in the company include Scott Jones, professor of accounting and director of the Venture Development Center in UD’s Lerner College of Business and Economics, and Dan Frost, who received his master of business administration degree from UD in 2008.

The University of Delaware owns the patents for the technology, which are under exclusive license to PAIR Technologies, and has taken a small equity position in the company.

“PAIR Technologies offers an analytical tool with the potential to contribute significant benefits to society through a wide array of medical, military, environmental, and industrial applications,” said David Weir, director of UD’s Office of Economic Innovation and Partnerships.

“The company grew out of UD innovation and is a model for how federal, state, and University partners can work together to advance economic development,” Weir said.

The idea for PAIR Technologies started in a UD graduate course, “High-Tech Entrepreneurship,” which Rabolt and Jones co-teach. Students explore selected UD patented technologies in the course and then do market analyses to assess their commercialization potential. The planar array infrared technology consistently rose to the top.

“We think we have that next-generation technology ‑ beyond the current market leader, Fourier Transform Infrared spectroscopy,” Rabolt said.

Planar Array Infrared (PAIR) Spectroscopy is a technique for measuring the concentration or amount of a given material by measuring how well that material absorbs or transmits light.

While it would take the current technology, designed more than 30 years ago ‑ a Fourier Transform Infrared (FT-IR) spectrograph ‑ tens of minutes to chemically identify the petroleum in a major oil spill, for example, this new instrument could provide the molecular fingerprint in one second or less, hastening cleanup efforts, Rabolt said.

When a sample goes into the current FT-IR spectrograph for analysis, the instrument divides the infrared light source into two beams that reflect off both a fixed and a moving mirror. Two separate experiments must run for every analysis; one with the sample, and one without. The latter test accounts for any “background interference” from the environment, which it must mathematically reconcile. Additionally, researchers must purge the sample chamber with nitrogen gas to displace any water vapor.

The PAIR Technologies instrument has no moving parts. It relies on a focal plane array, commonly used in medical imaging, which consists of a cluster of light-sensing pixels at the focal plane of a lens to receive the optically dispersed infrared light. As a result, the PAIR Technologies instrument provides a direct reading in under a second.

“This is a rugged replacement for the existing technology, taking it out of the lab and into the field,” Chase said. “Our instrument has no moving parts. It’s durable, compact, and portable. You can carry it out to your local stream or use it in a doctor’s or dentist’s office.”

Besides environmental monitoring and even a potentially remote way to sample toxins to aid soldiers and hazardous materials (hazmat) responders, researchers see applications in industry to help maintain and improve manufacturing processes, ensuring  the purity of pharmaceutical drugs or the thickness of paints or polymer coatings.



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