Science and Technology Facilities Council
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What’s in the bottle? We can tell you in 5 seconds without opening it.

A new machine which can identify the chemical composition of liquids sealed within non-metallic containers without opening them is one of three candidates announced yesterday as in the running to win the UK’s premier engineering prize, the MacRobert Award. Already being deployed in 65 airports across Europe, this innovation can protect travelers by screening for liquid explosives and could spell the end of the ban on liquids in hand luggage.

Based on research undertaken at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), Cobalt Light Systems has developed an airport security scanner, the Insight100. It should enable airports to remove the existing hand-luggage liquid ban through phased implementation over the next two years.

The Insight100’s underlying technology was first developed by STFC’s Professor Pavel Matousek in a true ‘eureka’ moment at the Central Laser Facility. Professor Matousek said: “The technology works using the technique of Raman spectroscopy. When combined with advanced algorithms to distinguish between the container and its contents, the technology is able to identify the chemical composition in seconds, and with greater reliability than any other existing system.”

Synonymous with spotting the ‘next big thing’ in the technology sector, the MacRobert Award is the UK’s longest running national prize for engineering. It identifies outstanding innovation with proven commercial promise and tangible societal benefit.

Speaking about the shortlisting Professor Matousek, who is also Cobalt’s Chief Scientific Officer, said that “It is wonderful to see this recognition for the work of the STFC spin-out company Cobalt Light Systems. To take such technologically advanced research and develop it in such a way that a successful solution to a key national security challenge has been found is fantastic. It is tremendously exciting to see that this research breakthrough has led to the development of a commercial product that has now been introduced in a total of 65 airports across Europe.”

Paul Loeffen, CEO for Cobalt Light Systems, said, "Being selected as a finalist for the prestigious MacRobert Award is an incredible accolade for our team. It is hugely satisfying to see an academic discovery from a UK laboratory undergo several stages of innovation ending with deployment at international airports to enhance passenger security. The development of the Insight100 has been a multi-disciplinary engineering effort on very tight timescales and has culminated in dramatic commercial success over the last year."

The fundamental science behind the device could also be used for non-invasive cancer screening, detecting counterfeit goods, and food analysis in the future. This technique was originally used to help pharmaceutical companies verify medicines.

John Robinson FREng, Chair of the MacRobert Award judging panel, said, “Each of this year’s finalists has demonstrated exceptional innovation and technical expertise but, perhaps more importantly, the significance of how this is being applied for the benefit of society is exceptional." The winner will be announced on 2nd July 2014 at the Academy's Awards Dinner at the Royal Opera House in London.


Read more about the MacRobert Award 2014.

Professor Matousek from STFC’s Central Laser Facility, based at the Research Complex at Harwell, is available for interview via the contact below.

Images available (credit Cobalt Light Systems):

  • The Cobalt Insight100 Instrument
  • Cobalt Light Systems team photograph


Wendy Ellison, STFC Press Officer
Tel: +44 (0)1925 603 232
Mob: +44 (0)7919 548 012

Notes for Editors

Cobalt Light Systems – cutting edge materials science fighting terrorism 
Cobalt Light Systems has developed a means of analysing the composition of chemicals sealed within any non-metallic container without opening it, providing detailed and exceptionally reliable results in just five seconds. Having initially used this technique to help pharmaceutical companies verify medicines, Cobalt has now applied it to a security machine, the Insight100, which is anticipated to enable airports to remove the existing hand-luggage liquid ban through phased implementation over the next two years.

The hand luggage liquid restrictions were introduced in 2006 following what officials described as a threat from liquid explosives. Passengers boarding planes in EU countries are currently allowed to carry within their hand luggage liquids in containers no more than 100ml in capacity. The Insight100 system can analyse bottles up to three litres, in order to determine if they contain anything considered a threat, without having to open them.

The machine shines a laser at the container, and the spectrum of light returned is then cross-checked against those collated on a library of threats. While previous plans to remove the liquid restrictions have been delayed due to airports’ concerns about the robustness of technology available at the time, the introduction of the new Insight100 has proven a game-changer. It has recently been deployed in eight of the top ten EU airports including Heathrow and Gatwick, and a total of 65 airports in Europe have introduced the system since January 2014.

Whilst offering exceptionally reliable prevention of security threats and terrorism associated with onboard liquids, the Insight100 means airports can improve convenience for passengers by phasing out the existing liquid restrictions. The technology’s reliability and low false alarm rate also significantly reduces the cost associated with delays, missed flights, confiscations and extra personnel required to manage current security processes.

While the airport security application takes off, Cobalt in collaboration with STFC and other external partners is also exploring the potential of their exceptional innovation in other areas such as non-invasive breast cancer screening, bone disease diagnosis, detecting counterfeit goods, food analysis, law enforcement, and more.

Cobalt Light Systems is an SME based in Oxfordshire. It was established in 2008 as a spin-out from the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council.

About the MacRobert Award. First presented in 1969, the MacRobert Award is widely regarded as the most coveted in the industry. Founded by the MacRobert Trusts, the Award is now presented by the Royal Academy of Engineering after a prize fund was established with donations from the MacRobert Trusts, the Academy and British industry. For more information, visit:

The Royal Academy of Engineering. As the UK's national academy for engineering, we bring together the most successful and talented engineers for a shared purpose: to advance and promote excellence in engineering. We provide analysis and policy support to promote the UK's role as a great place to do business. We take a lead on engineering education and we invest in the UK's world-class research base to underpin innovation. We work to improve public awareness and understanding of engineering. We are a national academy with a global outlook. We have four strategic challenges: Drive faster and more balanced economic growth; foster better education and skills; lead the profession; promote engineering at the heart of society.

The STFC Central Laser Facility (CLF) is a partnership between its staff and the large number of members of UK and European universities who use the specialised laser equipment provided to carry out a broad range of experiments in physics, chemistry and biology. The CLF’s wide ranging applications include experiments in physics, chemistry and biology, accelerating subatomic particles to high energies, probing chemical reactions on the shortest timescales and studying biochemical and biophysical process critical to life itself.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and tackling some of the most significant challenges facing society such as meeting our future energy needs, monitoring and understanding climate change, and ensuring global security. STFC is one of seven publicly-funded research councils. It is an independent, non-departmental public body of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

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