16 Jan '14
Oleg Kouzbit, Online News Managing Editor
Researchers from a Russian think-tank outside Moscow have developed instruments that they claim enable you to identify the chemical composition of everything from pills to precious stones, and see through thick layers of naturally nontransparent materials like plastic or paper. With those, you may expect to take virtually no time to tell a fake jewel from an authentic one, and pinpoint illicit drugs or weapons artfully hidden from view. The systems reportedly have very competitive price tags and are said to have already found handsome foreign markets from Japan to the U.S. Domestic customers are slow but lining up, too. With a broader customer base the innovators count on the team hopes to make the devices as small as a mobile phone.
The instruments have been designed by scientists from the Institute of Solid-State Physics located in Chernogolovka, a small town some 40 miles east of Moscow. The core of the innovative team are senior research fellows from the Institute’s non-equilibrium electrons laboratory.
To develop and commercialize their flagship laser-powered products—an improved Raman-luminescent spectrometer-microscope and a security check scanner—the think-tank has set up a spin-off company, RamMix, which is now an R&D player and resident of Skolkovo, the largest state-sponsored innovation hub still under construction just outside Moscow.
The Raman spectrometer: checking precious stones, counterfeits and then some
The more marketable of the two for today is the spectrometer that helps recognize the chemical composition of solid, liquid and granular substances. A sophisticated laser that is the heart of the system is assumed to take less than 60 minutes to break a compound down into simpler elements and substances, and determine quantities of each of the elements in a sample.
At the core of the spectrometer project is what is known in physics as Raman scattering, a phenomenon that became a game changer in optics and won its discoverer, Indian scientist Chandrasekhara Raman, the 1930 Nobel Prize in Physics. It showed that molecules of each specific substance are revealed in the scattered light spectrum as a set of lines each possessing unambiguous and very precisely individual spectral position and intensity. With the discovery there came solid proof of the quantum nature of light.
Today, reinforced by the luminescent scattering phenomenon, the Raman effect based technology developed in Chernogolovka gives a most complete possible picture of a substance under study.
Put a sample in it—and see
The new software-aided spectrometer is capable of spotting what may be likened to the unmistakably individual ‘footprints’ that any substance leaves when impacted by a laser.
All a researcher has to do to find out what he or she has got is to put a vial with the powdered or liquid substance into a special compartment on the instrument—and then see on a computer screen, in a charted form, the chemical spectrum of this substance, and its element-by-element recognition. Then the system compares the results with the benchmark parameters for this substance, stored in a database, and shows equivalence—or dissimilarity.
So, with the new device one doesn’t have to fracture, cut up or otherwise dismantle an object to see what it’s made of. A wide range of application opportunities is opening up as a result.
From verifying gems to doing DNA sequencing
The Chernogolovka-originating spectrometer can be used to check the authenticity of precious stones. Two gems may look identical, but putting both to the laser test will reveal which one is a pure emerald, for example, and which is a craftily colored and shaped, yet worthless piece of glass.
RamMix says that the current buyers of the product are mostly interested in this function. National customs services, including Russian customs responsible for verifying the genuineness of imported and exported gems, are said to be among the purchasers.
Another application is checking the quality of pharmaceutical products. The ‘wonder-laser’ will take very little time to determine, for instance, how much naphthalene a manufacturer put into a batch of paracetamol, a mild pain reliever and fever reducer popular in Russia; and the procedure will cost considerably less than in conventional chromatography. According to an Institute of Solid-State Physics spokesman, Roszdravnadzor, a Russian government watchdog screening pharma and other biomed products for the domestic market, “has purchased one such system to create a pilot mobile laboratory to test medicine at the drugstore level.”
RamMix claims their spectrometer is a perfect ‘sleuthhound’ for counterfeit products. The Skolkovo Foundation reported that “a certain mobile phone manufacturer” was interested to buy the system; that firm had purportedly faced a situation when a phony couldn’t be identified until after the chemical composition of a plastic the handset was made of was recognized.
A longer-term goal for the developers from Chernogolovka is to put their spectrometer to broader medical use, and to not only create a portable biofluids analyzer for blood, urine, etc. (sparing patients undue visits to public clinics) but also make a next gen sequencer, a sophisticated apparatus to do DNA sequencing.
Last but surely not the least, the Raman-luminescent spectrometer-microscope may find its way to security services, the law enforcement, and inspection offices, as the Institute of Solid-State Physics scientists say it is particularly good at locating illicit drugs and explosives.
The omni-seeing scanner
The spectrometer is not the only invention coming from the Chernogolovka researchers. There’s another, which looks like a sensor for a very typical video surveillance camera found everywhere from shopping malls to public transport.
The appliance, termed the security check scanner, works by seeing people and objects through no matter what material a person’s clothes are made of or an object is hidden in.
No art of concealment will help a delinquent trying to bring cold steel or hazardous substances into a restricted area like airport, nuclear power station or military base, the developers believe. With the scanner, the wrongdoing will be laid bare, they assert.
From B2G to markets as wide as the world
Both gadgets have been successfully commercialized abroad, RamMix says, much faster than they have at home. There are customers from Japan, the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, and a total of 15 other foreign countries.
Instruments like these are not entirely unique in the world; there are international analogs, but most are more narrowly focused and don’t offer so many potential applications. What makes the Chernogolovka devices so appealing to global buyers is the price. The spectrometer, for example, costs a reported 10,000 euros—a tiny fraction of the tab for similar items anywhere in the developed world.
As the researchers from the Institute of Solid-State Physics keep working to improve their products, an objective has been set to make the gadgets as small as a mobile phone, and even more affordable. Empowering rank and file consumers to be ‘expert inspectors’ and be able to check what they buy and test their health at home is feasible, RamMix feels.