Skip to content

Toggle service links

You are here

  1. Home
  2. From space science and submarines to Scotch Whisky

From space science and submarines to Scotch Whisky

How can understanding the secrets of the universe help make submarines safer, ensure Scotch Whisky's provenance and 'sniff out' new fragrances? Dr Geraint Morgan explains all.

For the past 20 years, my colleagues and I from The Applied Science & Technology Group (ASTG) at The Open University have been translating our space know-how to solve complex analytical challenges back on Earth. Building on the lessons learnt working on projects, such as the European Space Agency's (ESA) ROSETTA mission, we have developed new analytical instrument solutions for a range of customers. We have also created new testing methods using cutting-edge gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and comprehensive gas chromatography (GCxGC) techniques to unravel the secrets of the universe.

As with the comet, these techniques involve progressively heating liquids or solids to the point they become gasses and then injecting them into a long, chemical-lined gas chromatography (GS) column (tube) that separates the mixture into their component molecules. Heating the column allows even larger molecules to transfer into a mass spectrometer (MS), which converts them into ions – charged atoms or molecules – that can be separated, detected and quantified. In effect, the process allows us to identify the unique fingerprint of each compound.

Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry

GCxGC uses two columns to enhance the processes’ detective power further. By applying machine learning to the data these processes generate, we can analyse the composition of everything from a comet's atmosphere to the fragrance profile of individual perfumes by mechanically 'sniffing' them.

While labs worldwide use GC-MS and GCxGC techniques, our work is unique in how we apply them. Our multidisciplinary team of chemists, physicists, engineers, geologists, microbiologists and computer scientists cut their teeth using this technology in space missions. On a space lander, there is no room for excess or error. Every milliwatt, milligram and millimetre counts, meaning every component must be as small, light and energy-efficient as possible while also strong enough to survive the shock and vibrations of launch and landing and the vacuum of space’s extreme temperatures and radiation. The Ptolemy instrument we developed for the ROSETTA mission condensed the functions of serval lab instruments, the collective the size of a family car, into a shoebox-sized GC-MS system that weighs less than five kilogrammes.

Simple, shoebox-sized solutions to complex analytical challenges

While labs worldwide use GC-MS and GCxGC techniques, our work is unique in how we apply them. Our multidisciplinary team of chemists, physicists, engineers, geologists, microbiologists and computer scientists cut their teeth using this technology in space missions. On a space lander, there is no room for excess or error. Every milliwatt, milligram and millimetre counts, meaning every component must be as small, light and energy-efficient as possible while also strong enough to survive the shock and vibrations of launch and landing and the vacuum of space’s extreme temperatures and radiation. The Ptolemy instrument we developed for the ROSETTA mission condensed the functions of serval lab instruments, the collective the size of a family car, into a shoebox-sized GC-MS system that weighs less than five kilogrammes.

Ptolemy instrument

As no one can fix these instruments if they go wrong, every piece – even the most sophisticated – must also be highly reliable. For these reasons, we are always looking for ways to distil problems into their simplest form and research, design and build analytical solutions which are not only incredibly precise but portable, low-cost, low-maintenance and highly durable.

From space science and submarines…

In 2010, the UK's largest defence contractor, BAE Systems, approached us to develop a new air quality monitoring system for the country's submarine fleet. Funded by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the technology development project aimed to find a smaller, lighter, more efficient and accurate replacement for its existing system of monitoring air quality onboard submarines. As well as enhancing submariners' wellbeing, the MoD also wanted to select a UK company to design, build and maintain the technology, creating domestic capability for the first time in more than thirty years.

Having demonstrated our new air quality monitoring system in sea trials in 2014, BAE Systems contracted us to help select the company to make the technology operational and support that company through its lifetime. Following a competitive process, we chose the UK gas sensor manufacturers, Analox, Ltd, to manufacture the final solutions. This project has generated more than £14 million for the company and created 13 design, engineering and maintenance jobs. BAE Systems and Analox are now rolling the system out to all boats in the UK's submarine fleet. It will enhance submariners’ safety, deliver significant cost savings for the MoD and ensure the ongoing operation of the UK's continuous at-sea deterrent (CASD). It has also transformed Analox’s business model. During the next 30 years and beyond, more than 50% of the company’s income will come from this source.

…to Scotch whisky

Since 2018, we've applied our research to real-world challenges, mainly funded through SPRINT, the Space Research and Innovation Network for Technology, to help small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the UK commercially exploit space data and technologies.

One of the first projects to come about through this unique partnership of top UK space universities, industry, government agencies, and the investment community was a collaboration with the Scotch Whisky Research Institute (SWRI). The SWRI authenticates whisky on behalf of its members, representing 90% of Scotland's whisky-producing capacity. Worth £6.1 billion annually, the Scotch Whisky sector accounted for 21% of the UK's food and drink exports in 2019 and employs more than 10,000 people. Scotch Whisky's high value creates significant incentives and opportunities for criminal activity by those who want to interfere with or counterfeit the spirit, defrauding customers, raising safety concerns, and depriving genuine producers and governments of revenue.

Working with SWRI, we developed novel GC-MS and GCxGC techniques to analyse the composition of hundreds of compounds in different whiskies and create unique digital fingerprints to help analysts tell the difference between real and fake spirits. More recently, we have been working with SWRI and IBM Research UK to develop machine-learning algorithms to enable the automated screening of suspect samples.

Sniffing opportunities

We’ve also collaborated with the sector leading flavouring and fragrance company, Givaudan, to develop a range of novel 'sniffing' technologies to support them in developing new fragrances and removing microplastics from household products we all use day-to-day. Givaudan produces about a quarter of such fragrances globally.

Our work with companies in the food and drink sector ensures the quality of consumer products. Flavonoids are a family of plant-derived compounds that give food and drink their unique flavours and smells. Monitoring the correct levels of these critical compounds in the production process ensures products' consistency. Still, it is notoriously complex and time-consuming to profile those tiny flavonoids that can make all the difference to the complexity and taste of the finished product.

Using our GC-MS techniques with product innovation company Efficiency Technologies Ltd, we've developed new methods to analyse those low-level flavonoids. We’ve also helped the company identify a previously unknown anomaly that can directly impact the product's flavour profiles and commercialise a new premium alcoholic drink product that two leading UK supermarkets are currently evaluating.

The sky is not the limit (it's just the beginning)

There is no limit to the powerful analytical technologies we've developed during the past two decades. There are significant opportunities to apply these techniques to everything from supporting sports authorities to detect otherwise undetectable doping substances to finding new, non-invasive ways to detect prostate cancer in urine samples. I've also recently had the chance to help the UK's Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) develop the Target Product Profile to specify the performance parameters a manufacturer would have to meet to develop a rapid COVID 19 breath tester.

None of this would be possible without our team and its unique blend of multidisciplinary expertise. Space missions force us to think outside of the box, but our focus on the end-user ensures we're also thinking commercially to develop and build solutions that work.

Written by: Dr Geraint Morgan

Originally published on Research at the OU News