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STFC spin-out wins UK's major engineering prize for airport scanner technology

3 July 2014 -  HRH The Princess Royal last night presented Cobalt Light Systems, a company born from technology developed by scientists at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), with the prestigious 2014 MacRobert Award for engineering innovation,  for its unique liquids scanner. 

The Cobalt Light Systems team receive the MacRobert Prize Medal , from left to right: Guy Maskall, Data Scientist; Craig Tombling, Chief Operating Officer; Paul Loeffen, Chief Executive Officer; Pavel Matousek, Chief Scientific Officer; Stuart Bonthron, VP Product Development.
(Credit: Rob Falconer/Royal Academy of Engineering’)

The scanner may soon enable airports to relax the existing hand-luggage liquid ban, and use of the same technique is now being used for other applications including real-time diagnostic tools for cancer and bone disease.

Cobalt Light Systems, which was up against engineering giant Rolls Royce and the fast growing QuinetiQ spin-out OptaSense, pioneered a technique to identify, within seconds, the chemical composition of liquids sealed within non-metallic containers without opening them. 

The Cobalt team has used the technology to develop an airport security scanner that can identify potential liquid explosives. Cobalt’s Insight100, now installed in 65 airports across Europe, could help lift the blanket ban for passengers carrying liquids in hand luggage.

Professor Pavel Matousek, Cobalt’s Chief Scientific Officer and an STFC Senior Fellow, first devised the concept while researching ultrafast Raman spectroscopy at the STFC’s Central Laser Facility.  

“It was very satisfying to uncover a new laser method with such wide range of applications and of such a high societal impact,” he said. “Suddenly we were able to use this method to probe the chemical content of opaque bottles without opening them, and scan biological tissues non-invasively at depths previously unimaginable.”

Professor Matousek added, “This scientific breakthrough enabled Cobalt to develop and engineer the new scanner that is now deployed in 8 out of the 10 largest airports in Europe, making air travel safer for all of us– and other exciting applications are still looming on the horizon.”

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.

The judging panel, representing the cream of modern British engineers and entrepreneurs from a range of disciplines, selected Cobalt for its potential to touch the lives of millions of people.

John Robinson FREng, Chair of the MacRobert Award judging panel, said: "The promise of this single fundamental innovation to improve the lives of millions of people in such a variety of ways meant Cobalt stood out in what has been a particularly competitive year for the MacRobert Award.

"Beyond the outstanding technical innovation itself, Cobalt also captured the judges' attention with its hearty ambition. A fast-growing yet humble SME, it is a shining example of the technology transfer process from UK research labs into a successful commercial enterprise.”

Cobalt Light Systems CEO, Paul Loeffen, said, “My colleagues and I are honoured that our work has been recognised in this way. It is tremendously satisfying to take a research discovery from the laboratory and develop it into a viable commercial product which is already enhancing passenger safety at airports. Receiving this award is truly a great success for UK science and engineering.” 

The unique scanning technology developed by Cobalt is now being applied to research in other disciplines through research at the STFC Central Laser Facility within the Research Complex at Harwell. For example, in collaboration with University College London it is being used to develop a way to diagnose bone disease much earlier, promising to enable patients to seek treatment at an earlier stage. It is also being tested in research, in partnership with  the University of Exeter, to analyse the chemical composition of breast tissue following mammograms which have identified ‘shadows’ that need further investigation.  The non-invasive, painless technique has a potential to replace the needle biopsy and deliver an accurate, on-the-spot diagnosis.


Images available (credit Cobalt Light Systems):

  • The Cobalt Insight100 Instrument
  • The Cobalt Light Systems team photograph

More information:
Marion O’Sullivan
STFC Press Officer
Tel: 01235 445627
Mob: 07824 888990

Notes for editors:

Cobalt Light Systems was established in 2008 to develop its novel technologies into a range of Raman applications for laboratory and industrial analysis.  The underlying technology is exclusive to the company and was invented at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the UK.

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 judging panel for the MacRobert Award 2014 is as follows:

John Robinson FREng (Chair)
Chairman, Abbeyfield Society; previously Chairman and Chief Executive of Smith & Nephew plc; Chairman, George Wimpey plc, Railtrack plc, Low and Bonar plc, UK Coal plc and Consort Medical plc; Operating Partner, Duke Street Capital

Keith Davis
Chairman, The MacRobert Trust; formerly Director, Strategy & Planning, the Royal Academy of Engineering

Professor Nicholas Cooper FREng
Director, JN Cooper & Partners Ltd

Professor Sir Richard Friend FREng FRS
Cavendish Professor of Physics, University of Cambridge; Co-founder, Cambridge Display Technology Ltd and Plastic Logic Ltd

Dr Andrew Herbert OBE FREng
Former Chairman of Microsoft Research

Dr Gordon Masterton OBE FREng FRSE
Vice President, Jacobs Engineering; Deputy Chairman Construction Industry Council; formerly President Institution of Civil Engineers

Peter Saraga CBE FREng
Chairman of the Advisory Board, Ambient Assisted Living Joint Programme; formerly President of the Institute of Physics

Ian Shott CBE FREng
Managing Partner, Shott Trinova LLP

Dr Martyn Thomas CBE FREng
Director, Martyn Thomas Associates Ltd


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.

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000