The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) has worked with Cascade Technologies at various stages of its development and growth, from its formation as a spin-out from the University of Strathclyde in 2003 to its current position as an award-winning SME and the only commercial supplier of quantum cascade lasers for identifying and measuring industrial gases.
Two of the company's founders, Erwan Normand and Iain Howieson, developed an interest in laser technology for environmental measurements while working together at NPL. Today, Cascade Technologies employs 48 people and will have a turnover in excess of £8 million this year, exporting around 90% of its products overseas.
The birth of a company
Iain Howieson worked with NPL from 1995 to 2001, first as part of a CASE studentship during his PhD with the University of Strathclyde and consequently as a consultant. During this time he developed laser based gas analysis instrumentation that ultimately led to him receiving a prestigious award from the Optical Society of America in 2002 for outstanding contribution to atmospheric optics.
While Iain was working at NPL, Erwan Normand started work on a one year industrial placement as part of his Master's degree in Applied Physics from the University of Portsmouth. Erwan supported the electronic development related to the laser based gas analyser project, and the pair struck up a friendship that would eventually lead to them going into business together.
After his PhD was completed, Iain continued as a consultant at NPL until 2001 taking the instruments developed at NPL on a number of measurement campaigns, to places including the south of France, Australia and as far afield as the Arctic Circle. During this time Erwan moved to the University of Strathclyde to start a PhD on the application of Quantum Cascade Lasers in gas sensing.
During their work at NPL, both Iain and Erwan realised that laser based gas analysis represented a huge commercial opportunity. Their realisation coincided with the early stage commercialisation of the quantum cascade laser. Erwan started attending classes at Strathclyde's Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship and in 2003 he filed a patent with the University and Cascade Technologies was born. Iain had by this time moved on and experienced life in a start-up business, so Erwan was keen for him to join the fledgling company.
Just over one year later, in the summer of 2004, Cascade Technologies had raised £1.1 million in funding and sold its first Quantum Cascade Laser (QCL) System.
The company and the technology
Cascade Technologies' QCL systems operate at ambient temperatures and with high output powers and sensitivities. They can detect multiple gases and make over 100,000 measurements each second. Their ability to survive vibrations and operate over a large temperature range enables them to be used in real-world environments such as in factories or power stations. The company has released a number of products based on the QCL technology, and NPL has worked with them on many of these.
Nick Martin, who manages NPL's facility for the certification of instrumentation under the UK's Monitoring Certification Scheme (MCERTS), has undertaken a range of collaborative activities with the company over the years. During the formative stages of the company, Nick was instrumental in securing funding from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), to carry out work at NPL to underpin the development and provide credibility to Cascade's products. For example, key research data was produced in the development stages of a prototype instrument designed to be used on ships to continuously monitor their emissions.
This prototype went on to become the CT1000 model and was subsequently type tested at NPL in accordance with a programme negotiated with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), to check that the product met their stringent specifications. Nick demonstrated the validity and independence of the tests to the MCA, which polices all maritime environmental issues in UK waters.
More recently, Cascade Technologies has agreed a deal with a major engineering and electronics company to supply a QCL product that monitors the CO and CO2 emissions from domestic boilers during production. Cascade has installed gas analysers in factors across Europe, supporting production on around 35 production lines. The system tests every boiler so that they can be individually adjusted to optimise performance. Well over 1,000,000 boilers are tested each year. To give the boiler manufacturer confidence in the laser technology, NPL carried out an independent comparison of Cascade's technology with a competitor's instrument which was witnessed by the company experts considering the implementation of the novel technology.
The Cascade Technologies system displaced the previous system which was manufactured by a major overseas company.
Novel QCL measurement technology continues to find applications in industrial production. In 2013 Cascade Technologies won the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) Measurement in Action Award, which is sponsored by NPL. The award was given for its CT2211 Micro Leak Detection System, which is mounted onto aerosol production lines in order to detect leaking cans. The system is designed to replace the traditional method of detecting leaks using hot water baths with operators looking for bubbles. Cascade's system can check up to 500 cans per minute, vastly improving on the limit of the previous leak detection methodology of 150 cans per minute - a throughput increase of over 200%. The technology also has implications for health, safety and the environment as leaking aerosol cans can be a major fire hazard, especially when in transit.
Measurement makes the difference
NPL and Cascade Technologies share a culture and understanding of good measurement practice. It is no coincidence that two people that met at NPL are now leading an award-winning company that specialises in creating innovative measurement solutions for industry.
National Measurement System investment played a key role in the development of Cascade Technologies and it could be argued that, had Erwan Normand and Iain Howieson not met at NPL and worked on a project that piqued their interest in laser-based measurements, the story of Cascade Technologies may look very different, or not exist at all.