UU Innovation

A business journey that began in space

2016-03-11

Researchers at Uppsala University’s Ångström Laboratory have developed an entirely new type of detector that can be used to detect extremely small quantities of various gases in the air. Tracking poison gases, detecting explosives in the security industry, analyzing exhaled air and measuring greenhouse gases are all examples of its use. But it was space the scientists had in mind when they first came up with their innovative idea.

“Finding out whether life exists on other planets is a real attraction, but we are, of course, not alone in wanting to make that discovery. One way of doing so is to try and trace isotopes and possible isotope shifts as a sign of life”, says Ångström Space Technology Centre researcher Anders Persson, who, together with colleagues Greger Thornell and Martin Berglund, is one of the people behind the new detector.

The research team behind Fourth State Systems.

“A rover equipped with a similar detector can currently be found on Mars”, says Anders, “but it is large and cumbersome. What we have done is to utilise microelectronic technology developed in our lab – including a plasma light source the size of a fingertip – to create a miniaturised detector weighing just a fraction of that sitting on the surface of Mars, and that is far more robust. Furthermore, our instrument, doesn’t sacrifice any of its measurement quality. It is, in fact, able to analyze considerably smaller quantities of gases than is possible today, which is a further competitive advantage. The next step is to test the system’s unique features – that which sets it apart from existing instruments – and demonstrate its benefits to the marketplace”.

“The applications are extremely broad so everything is actually interesting to test, but we must start somewhere and have therefore selected just a few examples to start with”, continues Anders Persson.

Focus on environmental monitoring

One chosen application is environmental monitoring, where there is a big need to analyze very small amounts of greenhouse gases. The new detector technology makes it possible to carry out a greater number of measurements and generate more accurate data, which will help us better understand how these gases circulate in nature, and thus more precisely predict the consequences of climate change.

“Many environmental scientists place similar demands on their equipment as space scientists; that it can be used in harsh environments for months on end without any supervision and still deliver reliable results, for example. Here, a detector developed with space in mind enjoys a competitive advantage”, notes Anders Persson.

“As research scientists, we are accustomed to describing problems and limitations, and delving deep down into them. But commercialising our research requires a completely different approach. We have to think the opposite; what is it that is so good and how do we progress it further? Without support from Uppsala University Innovation, we would never have got where we are today”, says Anders.

Uppsala University Innovation helped Anders and colleagues with both business counselling and patents. They also received 2 MSEK from Vinnova to verify the market and technology. In addition to the three researchers, the team now includes Kerstin Gunnarsson as commercial project manager. The project is called ‘Fourth State Systems’.