Innovation Awards 2015: finalists in manufacturing sector
Watches as credit cards, near-telescopic cameras and flat-pack ducting
Dr David Finn and Mark Rafferty of Amatech Group Ltd: “What we have been able to do is almost defy the laws of physics.”
Conal O’Neill of Panelduct: “What we are doing is unique.”
Orla Hanrahan of Andor Technology, whose iXon 800 is capable of focusing on individual photons of light.
In Ireland it allows Visa debit cardholders to pay bills up to €15 without going to the trouble of putting the card in the machine and entering a PIN number – all they have to do is scan the card across the surface of the reader and the bill gets paid.
The same technology is used by the Leap cards on the Luas and other Dublin public transport services.
It works by an antenna built into the card receiving energy from the reader terminal in the form of electro-magnetic radiation – radio waves – and using that to transmit the data from the smart chip in the card to authorise the payment.
The difficulty until now has been the sensitivity and power capabilities of the antenna.
The card either has to be physically held against the machine or in very close proximity to it. This means it has to be taken out of the owner’s wallet before use and this can present security risks in crowded public areas.
Irish company Amatech has come up with a unique solution to this problem through a breakthrough in antenna design. The need to directly connect the in-card antenna to the back side of the microchip module has been eliminated by the addition of a small etched antenna on the backside of the microchip itself.
Using a process known as inductive coupling the larger antenna connects with the one contained in the chip making for a much more powerful and efficient unit.
This delivers both increased sensitivity and range as well as better day-to-day performance as the card is better able to stand up to normal wear and tear due to the lack of a physical connection between the two antennae.
But this is not all, as Dr David Finn explains: “What we have been able to do is almost defy the laws of physics. We are able to use metal in the card to increase the power of the antenna.
“If you take that a step further it means that anything made of metal can become an antenna and this is why many of the major credit-card companies are interested in the technology.”
According to Finn this interest is being driven by the emerging area of payment objects.
The ones most in the news at the moment are the smartwatch devices being developed by major technology companies such as Apple and Samsung but the Amatech technology will allow almost any piece of metal jewellery, as long as it is of sufficient size, to become a payment object.
The problem with using watches and phones for payments is that they need their own power source to do so.
If your battery is dead your wallet dies with it – until you recharge at least. However, a standard wristwatch with a chip and antenna embedded in it can be become a contactless payment card with no need for a power source. The same applies to signet rings, charm bracelets and a range of other metal objects.
“I invented the contactless payment system back in 1996 and have been working on improvements to it since then”, says Finn.
“Using metal as the antenna has cost advantages as well. The cost of the antenna for the card is about 20 cent whereas with our technology you can use a sheet of aluminium foil at a cost of a fraction of a cent.”
The market for the technology is enormous. “In the US alone some 550 million credit cards are issued each year”, Finn points out. “By the end of this year they want them all to be chip and contactless. And that is just the US. We are talking to all the major credit card companies as well as the card manufacturers. We will continue to work on the technology to improve it and enable its use in more and more objects. We want to make it the de facto standard for payment objects around the world.”
The new camera is based on a scientific technology that was pioneered by Andor called electron multiplying charge (EMCCD).
EMCCD cameras are extraordinarily sensitive, in fact they can count single photons of light.
Andor’s iXon EMCCD platform has been designed to minimise all sources of detector noise, rendering it the most sensitive detector in the world. However, many scientific applications require both sensitivity and speed of detection. The newest iXon Ultra 888 is also the fastest EMCCD detector in the world.
Andor was a spinout company from the Queen’s University Belfast physics department in 1989.
Since then, the company has grown to a position of market dominance in its field and in early 2014 became part of Oxford Instruments plc.
The new camera uses a unique system to outperform other processors. Andor used its electronic tuning know-how to effectively “overclock” the sensor of the camera to make it capable of operating at three times the conventional speed.
“This overclocking enables us to offer faster frame rates with a larger field of view”, says Original Equipment Manufacturer and research product manager Dr Colin Coates.
“A great many applications will benefit from access to single photon sensitivity at faster frame rates, especially with a larger field of view,” Coates adds.
“Basically it means that we can minimise the amount of important information that is lost, the camera being able to quantitatively measure more of the subject, even if the subject is a process that is happening at fast speeds and emitting very low light.”
This heightened sensitivity has many practical applications. For example, scientists can now follow dynamic processes in living cells with much greater precision.
This is important for the majority of live cell imaging, such as when measuring very fast flow of ions such as calcium through the cell membrane. This is critical to the understanding and treatment of many conditions such as cystic fibrosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia.
Recently, three researchers shared the Nobel Prize for chemistry for their pioneering work in an emerging field called super-resolution microscopy, and all of them used Andor EMCCD cameras.
This breakthrough technique enables cell imaging with 10 times greater resolution than what has been regarded as the “classical diffraction limit”, allowing objects of only 10 nanometres in diameter to be resolved.
This enables much more information to be gained from within cells.
However, the technique needs to capture many raw images of single isolated fluorescent molecules to generate one single super-resolved image and has therefore been regarded as too slow for the study of dynamic processes.
The iXon Ultra 888 has the potential to radically boost the speed of super-resolution microscopy thereby opening the technique to the study of dynamic processes in living cells.
Outside of biosciences, the iXon Ultra 888 is also fast enough to enhance studies such as quantum research and high resolution astrophysics.
“The latter can be exemplified by an application called adaptive optics, that uses a very fast reference camera to image a ‘guide star’, enabling us to measure and correct in real time for resolution-limiting distortions in the atmosphere – the process that makes stars twinkle is in fact incredibly debilitating for ground-based astronomy”, Coates explains. “As such, adaptive optics using fast and sensitive detectors such as the iXon can result in image quality on a par with that of space telescopes.”
The iXon Ultra 888 was launched in May 2014 and hundreds have been shipped since then. The camera is in use across many major scientific institutes across the world, such as Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge and several German Max Planck institutes.
“We plan to make sure that Andor stays dominant in the EMCCD market through continuing to innovate,” says Coates. “Right now, our market share is more than four times greater than our nearest competitor. We will broaden our range of sensors to match even more scientific applications.”
The standard ductwork currently in use is manufactured off-site in a workshop, transported to site in bulk form and installed – usually on the roof.
It must then be wrapped in mineral wool insulation with a further layer of cladding being added to weatherproof it. That’s an expensive three-stage process.
The Panelduct system eliminates two of these stages and offers further advantages in terms of cost and convenience.
The system comprises prefabricated and pre-insulated galvanised steel panels which are clipped together on-site to form the ducting systems.
This means there is no insulation or weatherproofing required. It also means that the system comes in flat-pack form making it much easier and cheaper to transport.
According to Panelduct research and development manager Conal O’Neill the original idea for the system came from the firm’s parent company, leading mechanical engineering company Walsh Mechanical Engineering. “We got the idea from our work in mechanical engineering”, he says.
“We had become frustrated with the problems presented by traditional ductwork. For instance, on one occasion we couldn’t get the ducting to fit through a narrow doorway in a building so we had to get a crane to get it up onto the roof. We looked around to see if there were pre-insulated flat-pack systems available and found that none existed. We found an unmet need and we decided to meet it ourselves and Panelduct was established specifically to develop the solution.
“What we are doing is unique. We are producing the world’s first weather-resistant steel-faced insulated panels. Where previously three sets of contractors were required to complete the installation of the ducting only one is required with the Panelduct system.”
Among the other considerable advantages of the system is its energy efficiency. It uses a patented compression sealing system which gives the ducting very high standards of air-tightness. This brings natural advantages in terms of noise containment but also in terms of energy and other savings.
“If you are leaking air in a system you need more power to push the air through it and that uses more energy and requires a larger and more expensive unit,” O’Neill explains.
“And you don’t need any special tools to do this. The panels fit together in what you might call a push-clip system which automatically creates the compression seal. This means that the system offers savings to a user over time when compared to traditional systems.”
Another benefit offered by the system is recyclability.
O’Neill points out that if a traditional ventilation system has to be replaced or redesigned the ducting sections are thrown out.
However, with the Panelduct system the ducts can be disassembled and the individual panels reused either for the new system or for another system elsewhere.
“A lot of our customers are telling us that they love the system because there is no waste with it.”
The system has been on the market since mid-2014 and demand is very strong.
“We installed the first system in Tesco Express in Dundalk in July of 2014. That involved 1,500sq m of ductwork and it was very successful.
“In fact, we completed the work in half the time allocated to us. Business has been very good since then and we have been completing an average of one job a month. But demand is now picking up from all over the world as more people get to hear about the product.
“I have just come back from a trade show in Germany and we have received enquiries from potential customers in almost every part of the world including countries like Malaysia, Iran, Colombia and New Zealand. Our main challenge now will be meeting that demand.”