In today's world, there has never been a greater need for quick and accurate ways to detect explosives, toxic chemicals, illegal drugs and other potential hazards to public safety and health. Contributing to this effort is a European Union (EU)-funded project that has united a Russian-born physicist working at a Dutch university with a private company in the UK.
© Fotolia, 2012
The I-Sense project has not only achieved major breakthroughs in two types of detection methods, but it has also led directly to the formation of two new companies, trained post-doctorate fellows, and won a tender to develop detection equipment for rescue workers in the Netherlands.
One of the driving forces behind I-Sense is physicist Yuri Udalov, a two-time recipient of funding from the EU's Marie Curie Actions (MCAs) programme of support for the mobility of researchers. A PhD recipient from Moscow's prestigious Lebedev Physics Institute, which has produced nine Nobel Prize winners, Udalov moved to the Netherlands as part of an exchange programme in 1990. He has lived there ever since.
While working at the Netherlands Centre for Laser Research in 2000, he received Marie Curie funding to support two research fellows. Five years later, Udalov was working as a researcher at the University of Twente in the field of high-power pulsed electron beams when another opportunity arose. "I was looking for funding for another project – in the field of de-mining and unexploded ordnance, and the inspection of luggage," Udalov said. "I knew some people in the UK, so we designed an industry-academia project and applied for Marie Curie support."
The project became known as I-Sense, and in April 2006 it was approved for €585,000 in Marie Curie funding for the period 2006-2009, Udalov said. The funding supported research in two directions, Udalov said – an advanced, high-power X-ray imaging technology known as "backscatter," which can detect subsurface objects such as landmines; and "ion mobility spectrometry," or IMS, which can find traces of explosives, chemical weapons and illicit drugs.
Among the project's breakthroughs, the X-ray backscatter equipment produces high-intensity beams and is much safer than existing devices, and the IMS features high air throughput, high resolution and very high sensitivity. "We have made tremendous improvements," Udalov said.
"The progress made by I-Sense has a multitude of benefits for public safety and security," Udalov said. Firefighters will be able to use mobile devices to detect potential hazards before they enter buildings. Police can drive through cities and search for "meth labs" and marijuana operations. Chemical weapons can be detected earlier than it was the case with other systems. And X-ray equipment will be more compact, meaning that large trucks will no longer be needed to carry them into the field.
The project also stimulated substantial knowledge transfer. Udalov spent time at the UK company Ex-Beams Ltd. to learn about IMS technology, and British researchers went to the Netherlands to study X-ray techniques.
The commercial success of the Marie Curie-funded initiative is impressive. The British team members founded Ex-Beams, which is involved in the detection of landmines and explosives. And a Dutch company known as Steray has been founded to bring the IMS technology to market. Both companies are negotiating with private investors and are in the process of adding new staff members, Udalov said.
"In this sense, the Marie Curie programme has been extremely valuable," Udalov said. "These technologies could be used anywhere in the world, but we prefer to start the commercialisation in the European community. The project was supported by European taxpayers, and we want to pay something back to them."