High precision analyser for medical and military applications
3 November 2009
Revolutionary technology for analysis of chemical and
biological substances developed at the University of Delaware holds
promise in multiple applications, ranging from the early detection of
diseases, to monitoring for chemical weapons and environmental
pollutants, to enhancing quality-control efforts in manufacturing
PAIR Technologies, a start-up company established by University of
Delaware researchers and a former DuPont scientist, is preparing to
commercialize a high-precision detector — a planar array infrared
spectrograph — that can identify biological and chemical agents in
solids, liquids, and gases present at low levels, in less than a second.
John Rabolt, the Karl W. and Renate Böer Professor of Materials
Science and Engineering at UD, and his students invented and patented
the technology in 2001. Rabolt and Bruce Chase, who recently retired
from DuPont as a research chemist, founded the company in 2005.
Planar array infrared (PAIR) spectroscopy
Spectroscopy is a technique for measuring the concentration or amount
of a given material by measuring how well that material absorbs or
The current 30-year-old technology, a Fourier transform infrared
(FT-IR) spectrograph, takes tens of minutes to chemically identify
samples. PAIR Technologies' new instrument could provide the molecular
fingerprint in one second or less, hastening cleanup efforts, Rabolt
When a sample is placed into the current FT-IR spectrograph for
analysis, the instrument divides the infrared light source into two
beams that reflect off both a fixed and a moving mirror. Two separate
experiments must be run for every analysis — one with the sample, and
one without. The latter accounts for any “background interference” from
the environment, which must be mathematically reconciled. Additionally,
the sample chamber must be purged with nitrogen gas to displace any
The PAIR Technologies instrument has no moving parts. It relies on a
focal plane array, commonly used in medical imaging, which consists of a
cluster of light-sensing pixels at the focal plane of a lens to receive
the optically dispersed infrared light. As a result, the PAIR
Technologies instrument provides a direct reading in under a second.
“This is a rugged replacement for the existing technology, taking it
out of the lab and into the field,” Chase says. “Our instrument has no
moving parts. It's durable, compact, and portable — you can carry it out
to your local stream or use it in a doctor's or dentist's office.”
Recognized internationally as leaders in the field of spectroscopy,
Rabolt and Chase are award-winning scientists who were good-natured
competitors for years until they joined forces in 2000 to begin
developing their new analytical tool.
The two collectively have more than 65 years in scientific research,
with a significant portion in industry — Chase recently retired after 33
years at DuPont, and Rabolt worked for 20 years at IBM before joining
the UD faculty in 1996.
Success through partnership
“PAIR Technologies offers an analytical tool with the potential to
contribute significant benefits to society through a wide array of
medical, military, environmental, and industrial applications,” says
David Weir, director of UD's Office of Economic Innovation and
“The company grew out of UD innovation and is a model for how
federal, state, and University partners can work together to advance
economic development,” Weir notes. “These are the kinds of high-tech
economic partnerships the University of Delaware wants to develop, and
we will be looking more aggressively at opportunities like this in the
According to Weir, this is only the second time in the University's
history that it has taken a small equity position in a UD start-up
company. The first was ET International, a computer technology and
software company founded by Guang Gao, Distinguished Professor of
Electrical and Computer Engineering.
The idea for PAIR Technologies actually was spawned in a UD graduate
course, “High-Tech Entrepreneurship,” which Rabolt and Jones co-teach.
Students explore selected UD patented technologies in the course and
then do market analyses to assess their commercialization potential. The
planar array infrared technology consistently rose to the top.
“Most technology has about a 30-year cycle. Then something comes
along to disrupt it, change it,” Rabolt says. “We think we have that
next-generation technology -- beyond the current market leader, Fourier
Transform Infrared spectroscopy.”
The company has been steadily developing with federal, state, and
University support, the researchers say.
“The whole thing is a partnership — you can't do it alone,” Jones
notes. “We've written the grant proposals and won Small Business
Technology Transfer (STTR) and Small Business and Innovation Research
(SBIR) grants from the National Science Foundation. A 'bridge' grant
from the Delaware Economic Development Office also was very helpful, and
we've gotten invaluable assistance from experienced alumni, including
Allan Ferguson, Barry Yerger, and David Freschman,” Jones says.
OEIP and the Delaware Small Business Development Center, which is a
new and critical component of OEIP, also has provided the company with a
variety of help and services, from intellectual property protection to
marketing assistance, according to Jones.
“The environment is much more business friendly now at the University
of Delaware,” Rabolt adds. “Statistically, only one in 20 start-ups will
make it. Yet the ones that are successful are enormously successful.
These kinds of opportunities also help attract high-quality faculty and
students to UD,” he notes.
A new vision for diagnosing eye diseases
Besides environmental monitoring and even a potentially remote way to
sample toxins to aid soldiers and hazardous materials (hazmat)
responders, the scientists see applications in industry to help maintain
and improve manufacturing processes, ensuring, for example, the purity
of pharmaceutical drugs or the thickness of paints or polymer coatings.
The detector also may bring new medical applications into focus.
For Rabolt, that became apparent when he visited his
ophthalmologist's office and was diagnosed with developing cataracts.
“They've been developing for years, but now they are big enough to
scatter light, and that's the only way to diagnose cataracts currently,”
he says. “If we can 'spectroscopically' detect a small amount of protein
in a person's teardrops, we may be able to provide a new diagnostic tool
for detecting cataracts early on and potentially many other eye
For Dan Frost, his three-credit graduate course a few summers ago as
a UD graduate student expanded his horizons rapidly into the world of
business, where he is now chief operating officer of PAIR Technologies.
“It's very rewarding to be involved in something that's going to
really benefit society,” Frost says. “Initially, we will do the
manufacturing here,” he notes of the company's office suite in Delaware
Technology Park. “We plan on doing the assembly locally. That's a
win-win for us and for Delaware.”