Starting with Insplorion AB, I am going to feature a series of articles about innovators in the field of air quality monitoring. My aim with these articles is to push the industry into the right direction. I don’t see air pollution as a way to make money but as a way to fix a problem, so by creating the right tools (sensors, air quality monitors, software, etc) we can shape the future towards a sustainable and less polluted environment.
Insplorion AB was founded in 2010 in Sweden, Europe by a team of professionals, Bengt Kasemo, Elin Larsson Langhammer, Christoph Langhammer and Igor Zoric. Although it is relatively a small company with less than 20 employees it is very active in nanotechnology, product research and sensor development. Insplorion’s core technology is the NanoPlasmonic Sensing (NPS),at least in my opinion, which you can read and learn how it works more on the interview below.
1. Tell us a bit about your motivation in developing air quality sensors?
We were approached by an entrepreneur who wanted to make a portable air quality device. He had scanned the market for all sensor technologies and not found any functional, especially for NO2. All current sensors were either too bulky, way too pricy or not sensitive or stable enough. When we dug deeper into the field, we confirm the problem and saw that the unmet need in the expanding air quality sensor market fitted very well with our core advantages: sensitive yet robust, and easy to miniaturize.
2. Tell us about the NanoPlasmonic Sensing (NPS) and how it has evolved through the years?
Nanoplasmonic Sensing is an optical sensing technology originally developed at Chalmers University of Technology in the early 2000s. It makes use of the Local Surface Plasmon Resonance (LSPR) phenomenon to detect physico-chemical changes within nanometers of the sensor surface. In simple terms you can imagine it as shining a light on a surface while any kind of substance is being added or removed, and detecting a colour change (wavelength peak-shift) with a photodetector. Our core technology is creating nanostructures that amplify this peak-shift; what we sometimes refer to as optical nano-antennas. When the company was founded in 2010, we first commercialized the technology as a general research instrument, mainly targeting life-science and material research. However, we have always seen the main potential to be within sensors, and so accelerated the development for battery and gas sensors from 2015 onwards.
The core has remained the same throughout the years, though sometimes different nanostructures are used for specialty applications. What has evolved is the coatings we place on top of the nanostructure to make sensors that are specific to certain target molecules. For example, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) for the air quality monitor, or other chemical endpoints for the battery sensor (aka portable).
3. When is NPS going to be widely available to the market?
NPS has been available to the market through our research instruments since 2010. These can be used to study surface phenomenon, for example adsorption, desorption, phase change, diffusion, etc. in various materials.
4. The market is in need for a reliable Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) sensor, is your company going to offer something that will shape the future of Low-cost monitoring/consumer-grade monitors or are you targeting more professional grade monitors, is there any available roadmap that you could share?
In the long term we are targeting high-volume consumer-grade monitors, because NPS technology is ideally suited for high volume applications. However, when introducing a new technology, we will start with niche applications that can set specific demands, are in lower volumes, and support a higher price as compared to later, when the technology is more mature.
5. What, in your opinion, makes a good air quality sensor?
Cities need professional grade monitors to report to EU and WHO for example, and what they would consider a “good air quality sensor” is different from what someone planning their cycling route would consider. Having said that, accuracy, precision, and response time are the parameters that everyone agrees are important, albeit the actual magnitudes may be different. Current low cost sensors might work with a fair resolution in a controlled environment, while a good sensor needs to be able to work in a real environment.
6. What are the biggest challenges for you in doing what you do as a company?
From a company perspective: Resource management. We are a company of 12 people, plus a few key consultants, with a platform technology that has a broad range of applications. Making the best use of our efforts and ensuring that we make the best of our technology’s potential; being focused but still not missing out on the best opportunities.
From a market perspective: we’re offering a completely different sensing technology. That means we have to undergo a lot more testing and more hardware development than a company that’s ordering sensors and boards from worldwide suppliers, or those that focus on amalgamating and analyzing data.
7. What differentiates your air quality sensors from other manufactures?
We develop and manufacture the sensor chips in house based on our proprietary NPS technology; there are very few players who have this type of vertical integration at the moment and our patent portfolio ensures that we can keep an edge. The platform enables sensors to be both sensitive, yet robust, easy to miniaturize and eventually produced in volume.
8. In your experience, are people in your country aware of the air pollution crisis?
We’re lucky to be based in Sweden where air pollution is not at crisis level. However, as with other densely populated cities, there are days where pollution levels are above the limits set by WHO. There are groups in both Stockholm and Gothenburg pushing for reductions in emissions, and so far municipalities have been great at adopting measures such as fully electric buses, increases in infrastructure for public transportation, and urban planning based on both climate and pollution targets.
9. How do you see the direction of the future when it comes to air pollution?
The optimist in me wants to believe that in 10 or 15 years’ time, emissions will be low enough that the type of monitoring required by WHO will be obsolete. At the same time, I know that while some countries are adopting measures to reduce their emissions, others continue to go forth with fossil fuels. So we are likely to continue to see high pollution levels for some time. The silver lining is that more and more regular people are realizing the detrimental effects of pollution and are pressuring their local and national authorities to take action. I would say a positive trend overall, but more effort needed to get us to where we need to be. Hopefully our sensor will play a part and facilitate the improvement of air quality globally.
10. Any final comments?
Most of the buzz so far has been about the NO2 sensor, but we will soon be starting development on a monitor capable of detecting multiple gases on the same chip. So similar size and a small bump in price, but 4 times as many gases. We’ll continue to target ambient air pollutants with ozone, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide taking priority as additions to nitrogen dioxide.
All in all, the company has a clear vision of what is missing from the market, capable sensors in a miniaturized form factor which will allow them to be used in almost any environment by making sure the measurements are reliable in every situation. I really liked that we share the same positive attitude towards the decrease of future air pollution emissions.