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Award for laser firm that ‘can see liquids inside objects’


A company whose technology could revolutionise airport security by identifying the chemical composition of a solid or liquid inside a container without opening it has won the top prize in British engineering.

Cobalt Light Systems has been awarded the £50,000 MacRobert Award by the Royal Academy of Engineering, beating two much larger firms, Rolls-Royce and QinetiQ.

The small Oxfordshire-based company has pioneered a technique to analyse the chemical composition of a substance behind virtually any barrier, including skin, within seconds.

Cobalt’s Insight100 machine has already been deployed this year by 65 European airports including Heathrow and Gatwick as a liquid scanner.

The hope is it could spell the end of the liquids ban for air travellers’ hand luggage, if the technology is given the green light by European regulators.

Paul Loeffen, the chief executive, said there were many other commercial possibilities. “It is a generalised techology that has many applications,” he said.

Research has begun on “non-invasive” tests for breast cancer and osteoporosis, and it could also be deployed for detecting illegal drugs and counterfeit goods and analysing food.

The techology uses Raman spectroscopy, which shines a laser to analyse the wavelengths from molecules within an object, and combines it with complex algorithms to distinguish between the container and its contents. “You can do these chemical analyses without a direct line of sight,” explained Mr Loeffen.

The MacRobert Award judges said Cobalt is “on the cusp of explosive growth, with the potential to create three or four multi-million pound businesses from their single innovation”.

Cobalt launched in 2008 as a spin-off from the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

Rolls-Royce and Jaguar Land Rover are past winners of the MacRobert Award, which seeks to identify “outstanding innovation with proven commercial promise and tangible societal benefit”.