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Tracking Down Gases

Air often contains traces of pollutant gases and other substances in addition to its common constituents, namely nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide. The ultra-rapid and transportable B-Trap analyzer, which is protected by a double patent,1 can detect such substances in a flash. “We live in a world with increasing safety concerns. We therefore need to be able to detect toxic substances on the spot and in real time, to alert the surrounding population, for example,” explains Michel Heninger, a researcher in the team behind B-Trap, at Orsay's LCP.2
Until now, this type of precise analysis was costly and time-consuming. A sample had to be taken and transferred to a laboratory to be analyzed by a mass spectrometer that required a skilled operator. Mass spectrometry involves the separation of substances according to the mass of their constituent molecules, as this mass is unique to each type of molecule. So far, the only instruments capable of high mass accuracy measurements were designed for the large molecules found in the petroleum and pharmaceutical industries, and therefore not adapted to the small molecules that make up the air. Furthermore, their size— that of a small apartment—meant transporting them was impossible.
The LCP team has succeeded in miniaturizing and adapting this mass spectrometry technique. The B-Trap analyzer, which is very simple to use, is the size of a small refrigerator and only costs around €150,000. It can detect a given molecule out of a million or even a billion in real time. “And we can obtain up to one measurement every second,” adds Heninger. The results are so encouraging that the project won a French national competition to promote innovative technologies3 twice—in 2003 and 2004—leading to the creation of the start-up AlyXan in 2005.
AlyXan has already won several contracts with France's Ministry of Defense for the continuous measurement of atmospheres in submarines, where the confined environment makes any toxic leak life-threatening. “A collaboration is also underway with the French petroleum institute (IFP) to study gas emissions produced by cars,” adds Heninger. “And we are also collaborating with the Occupational Medicine Department of the Paris-Sud University to monitor workplace air quality, a technology that could be extended to private homes.” Given the present concerns regarding questions of public health, AlyXan should have a very promising future.

Charline Zeitoun

Notes :

1. CNRS / Universités Paris-XI and -VI.
2. Laboratoire de chimie physique (CNRS / Université Paris-XI).
3. Concours national d'aide à la création d'entreprises de technologies innovantes.

Contacts :

Michel Heninger,
AlyXan, Orsay.


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