Finalists for the MacRobert award

Cambridge-based Owlstone has been selected as one of four finalists for the 2008 Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award. The Duke of Edinburgh will present the winner with £50,000 and a gold award medal at the academy awards dinner in London on June 9th, 2008.

The MacRobert award recognises the development of innovative ideas in engineering and the academy aims to demonstrate the importance of engineering and role of engineers and scientists.

Owlstone has successfully developed a silicon chip that can detect chemicals in ambient air. Previously, a large enclosure and connected apparatus was needed due to the sheer size of conventional sensors but now it has been reduced to a fingernail size silicon chip, which can detect a wide range of chemicals in real time from virtually any location. The system can then be connected to a wireless communication system to send back real-time results to a command station.

The company’s FAIMS technology offers the flexibility to provide rapid alerts and detailed sample analysis with reduced flow and improved ion drive over current conventional technology. It has improved sensitivity and improved selectivity at reduced power as it is miniaturised.

Micro and nano-fabrication techniques enable the sensor to be manufactured in a massively parallel fashion, achieving small form factor, economy of scale and reduced unit cost. The technology is customised to each application through software updates and can be dynamically reprogrammed for new chemicals even after deployment. Use of chemically inert materials ensures a long operational and storage life.

Owlstone founder Andrew Koehl said: ‘Our technology enables unprecedented miniaturisation of sensors with superior analytical capability, the ability to be programmed and reprogrammed to detect a wide range of substances, and high sensitivity and sensitivity.’

He added: ‘Our commercial opportunity is enormous given the need for new and innovative deployment scenarios in chemical detection for homeland security, industrial process control, environmental and healthcare markets.’