20 June 2013
Technology designed to measure water vapour on Mars is poised to be used for a whole host of every day applications here on Earth. From spot testing food products on a production line, to measuring industrial gas emissions from chimney stacks, all the way through to giving a farmer information on the health of his crop, a brand new type of spectrometer, no bigger than an iPad Mini, will open spectroscopy up to a multitude of new arenas.
KEIT Ltd is a brand new, forward thinking spin out company from the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) RAL Space division, which grew out of the need for an extremely robust, compact but highly accurate instrument that could withstand the harsh conditions associated with space, whilst accurately measuring multiple gases simultaneously from the atmospheres of planets.
Dr Hugh Mortimer, a research scientist at STFC’s RAL Space, and inventor of the technology said: “Mass is a real commodity on board satellites, so we wanted to develop an extremely high performance spectrometer which was also particularly stable and compact. We quickly realised that there were some very real non-space application opportunities: from R&D, to food production all the way through to agriculture, just to name a few. It’s the unique simplicity and stability of the spectrometer that we’ve developed here at STFC that makes it so versatile and powerful. This technology could transform how spectrometers are used, where they can be used and who uses them.”
Unlike conventional spectrometers that are bulky and rely on a complex system of moving mirrors, this new generation of spectrometer is compact, lightweight, and because it has no moving parts, it means that it is extremely stable.
The versatility, stability and simplicity of a KEIT spectrometer means that it could sit on any food or pharmaceutical production line to check, for example, the fat content of milk, or the origin and quality of whisky. Environmentally, the spectrometers could play a key role in monitoring gaseous emissions from industrial chimney stacks, enabling industries to adhere to environmental regulations. A KEIT spectrometer could also form the core of an invaluable analytical tool for any industrial or academic laboratory-based R&D facility.
The lightweight, compact and robust nature of KEIT spectrometers also makes them ideal for use on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) that are operated autonomously to survey large areas remotely. From a UAV, the spectrometer can image and map the geological characteristics of the ground below, and monitor the composition of the atmospheric gases surrounding it. In agriculture, the KEIT spectrometer can assess the colour variation within a farmer’s crop, to assess the health of the crop and enabling more targeted and cost-effective use of resources such as pesticides and fertilisers.
Kate Ronayne, Head of Innovation at STFC said: “KEIT is a perfect example of how innovation derived from our cutting edge technology programmes in Space can create growth and economic benefit through enterprise. I’m really excited about working with KEIT, as it grows its product portfolio to transform the way we measure and monitor materials across multiple industry sectors, ultimately improving our lives by increasing the yield of our land or by allowing us to affordably monitor environmental emissions.”
Longwall Ventures and the Rainbow Seed Fund (which is managed by Midven) have invested in the spin-out which will now take its patented technology forward towards full commercialisation. KEIT has also been awarded a prestigious place within the European Space Agency’s Business Incubation centre (ESA BIC Harwell). The incubation centre provides the ideal environment for such innovative, fledgling companies to translate space technologies and applications into viable businesses in non-space industries.
As a tenant at the ESA BIC, KEIT will benefit from an impressive support package, which includes more than £40,000 towards further technology development; easy access to both STFC and ESA technical expertise, and a dedicated business champion from STFC to help with business planning and guidance.