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Smell of success – Newbury Park firm

By   /   Monday, February 9th, 2009  /   Comments Off on Smell of success – Newbury Park firm

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Sorry, analytical chemists, but Electronic Sensor Technology wants you out of the picture.

The Newbury Park-based company makes the zNose, a tool that uses gas chromatography to analyze vapors and fragrances much faster than conventional machines. Though the 13-employee firm has been around since 1995, it is making a new push to get easy-to-use devices into the hands of security guards, environmental agents and other field workers to shortcut some of the work now handled by trained chemists.

The company is in the midst of demonstrating its newest portable unit to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It’s trying to persuade the commission to use the zNose to sweep cars that come into U.S. nuclear facilities for explosives and other dangerous chemicals.

Up to a point, the zNose works like all gas chromatography, forcing heated gas into a cylinder to pull apart and analyze volatile organic compounds from insect pheromones to nail polish remover. But the company has pushed the technology forward in speed and portability.

A typical gas analyzer is the size of a small refrigerator and takes about an hour to produce results. The most portable zNose uses a hand-held “nose” along with a computer body the size of a small carry-on suitcase. It can analyze samples in one to five minutes.

“With the zNose, you get a little less precision but a lot more speed,” said William Wittmeyer, the company’s chief operating officer. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

The company has spent the last few years “sowing mustard seeds,” as Wittmeyer puts it. Its devices have been used for detecting praying mantis pheromones, replacing taste testers and making sure Mars candy factories are clean between batches. It’s even being investigated as a potential tool for police on the road to use as a breathalyzer for marijuana impairment.

The zNose can detect concentrations as fine as parts per trillion. But it shines as a pre-screening method to determine whether further testing is needed.

For example, Wittmeyer said, “our job isn’t to determine whether you have [the chemical weapon] sarin gas, but to determine whether there’s probable cause to think you have sarin.”

One obstacle to making easy-to-use devices is the zNose’s flexibility. It tells the user what it sniffs, but it’s up to the user to know whether any of the some 60,000 detectable volatile organic compounds are cause for alarm.

That’s a bit much to ask of a security guard. So Electronic Sensor Technology is using software to find a fix. If end users knows what chemicals they’re looking for – say, nerve gas – the zNose can be programmed to give a thumbs up or thumbs down answer, along with a list of possible culprits for a thumbs down.

As for more general security applications – such as airports – Wittmeyer said the company isn’t banking on them.

“I think security as a market responds later,” Wittmeyer said. “On your house, when was the last time you changed the locks? If it gets burglarized you’ll change them. That’s how the security market responds. We think it’s an interesting area, but it’s not something to build a business around.”

Instead, the company is looking to break into verticals in environmental protection and even medical screening.

The zNose got important use in 2005, when an explosion caused a dump of toxic chemicals into the Amur River on the China-Russia border.

“The Chinese were using the zNose on boats to track this mass of polluted water to tell towns downstream to shut their intake valves off,” Wittmeyer said.

The zNose holds promise for testing wastewater on site, in the field. That helps companies as environmental laws trend toward cleaning up wastewater at the source instead of at central plants, especially when it comes to chemicals dangerous in even tiny amounts.

“We’re putting a lot of chemicals in water that are estrogen mimics. Estrogen is one of the compounds that Mother Nature works very conservatively with,” Wittemeyer said. “The assumption has always been that if it’s at low levels then it’s no big deal. But now we’ve said, ‘Wait a minute, it is a big deal.’”

The zNose might also be useful in detecting bacteria. British researchers are investigating the zNose as a potential breathalyzer screening for tuberculosis, a potentially huge market – all of California’s 6 million health-care workers are required to screen for the disease each year.

Of course, moving into field work means moving into operating budgets and out of capital budgets. That could help Electronic Sensor Technology’s balance sheet, which took a loss for the two most recent reported quarters after a profit the quarter before.

“We’ve seen an impact from the economy starting in the fourth quarter of last year,” Wittmeyer said. “Historically, the company has been selling into labs. When capital expenditures get cut, labs are the first thing to go.”

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