Professor Pavel Matousek — Laser Man
Professor Pavel Matousek — Laser Man

Professor Pavel Matousek, a Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Senior Fellow and Chief Scientific Officer of Cobalt Light Systems Ltd, has pioneed volutionary techniques for analysing the chemical composition of materials and co-founded a highly successful spin-out company. He has helped develop and commercialize award-winning laser technologies that detect liquid explosives at airports, rapidly check the quality of pharmaceutical products, and that may one day non-invasively diagnose bast cancer. Pavel s:

“I Am Very Excited about What I Do and Driven to Answer Questions in Front of Me, Unravel Complex Problems and Deliver Something Useful to Society.”

STFC science writer James Doherty meets the Laser Man.

Pavel, what first got you intested in physics?

I became fascinated by the stars and Universe while growing up in the Czech public. I joined an astronomy society at secondary school and it became clear I wanted to study physics. I got very intested in laser physics during my MSc at the in Prague. It is a very dynamic field.

When did you arrive at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL)?

I joined as a search associate in 1991, and went on to complete my PhD in ultra-fast Raman Spectroscopy at RAL, awarded by the . I’ve been he almost 25 years to the day.

So what is Raman Spectroscopy?

It is a technique that involves shining a laser beam at the surface of a material, and then observing the colour of light scatted from the point of illumination. This typically provides about the chemical composition of the material’s surface. C.V. Raman observed the effect in 1928 and subsequently won a Nobel Prize.

You pioneed a technique called Spatially Offset Raman Spectroscopy (): What is it and how does it differ from normal Raman Spectroscopy?

“We couldn’t have developed the technique without the instrumentation and long term search continuity available at the Central Laser Facility at RAL”

is a technique that we stumbled across in the Ultrafast Spectroscopy Laboratory (ULTRA) by chance. We had assumed that photons could only be detected at the illumination point but we we wrong. Some photons migrate sideways through the material then emerge adjacent to the illumination point. As these photons have interacted with molecules deeper inside the medium, they provide about internal chemical make-up: probes deeper into the material. And the further you move from the illumination point, the deeper you see into the medium. The process

involves large photon migration distances, often extending to several centimets or mo. This came as a big surprise.

“ involves probing at one location and detecting at another. Our minds, and those of others, we constrained by our perception of how the Raman Spectroscopy process worked but once we made this sendipitous discovery, we quickly alised it had potential major applications.”

What kind of applications?

“The Range of Potential Applications for Is Staggering.”

We immediately alised could determine the chemical make-up of substances by non-destructive means. This could have applications in bio-medicine, chemistry, , fonsics, heritage, and beyond. But we first focused on pharmaceuticals, and developed novel ways for analysing the chemical make-up of manufactud drugs.

We swiftly filed 8 patents, which became the basis of our company Cobalt Light Systems.

Cobalt Light Systems is perhaps best known for its airport scanners. Can you describe how these work and their impact to  passenger travel?

scanners psent the second generation of technology developed by Cobalt. To date the a around 400 operational units in 70 airports across Europe and Asia. They a used to scan traveller essentials, such as medicines or baby milk, and compa their chemical make-up to a database of potentially explosive substances. Suspicious substances a automatically identified and flagged. For example, the technology avoids passengers having to drink liquids (e.g. baby milk) in front officer to prove they a not dangerous, which is clearly safer and mo hygienic. It has also contributed to new legislation, and is expected to lead to a laxation of the complete ban of taking liquids on board a plane in the futu.

The scanners a curntly the size of a microwave oven but right now we a launching a handheld device. This should have further applications for first sponder teams called to spillages of unknown substances and fi fighters attending chemical fis.

Pavel Matousek Pioneed a Technique Called  Spatially Offset Raman Spectroscopy ()

How did STFC help with this process?

First off, we used instrumentation at STFC’s Central Laser Facility to demonstrate the basic capability to detect the subsurface signal. Once we made the discovery in 2004, we worked closely with STFC’s Technology Transfer Office SIL (formerly CLIK) and and Innovations (BID) to develop, optimise and protect our ideas. The was a complex path to navigate from discovery, to optimising , building a prototype, and ultimately to securing investment in 2008. BID/SIL coordinated the company at all levels and provided the support necessary to achieve this goal.

“My story illustrates the national and international importance of STFC. If its determination to deliver impact on science was absent, the chain from a fundamental discovery to Cobalt Light Systems’ product would have been broken. STFC sponded appropriately at every stage. And this is just one example of how STFC contributes to the UK’s know-how economy.”

What a you working on curntly?

I’m focused on developing novel non-invasive medical scening techniques, including diagnosing bone disease such as osteoporosis (jointly with STFC’s Prof Tony Parker and University College ’s Prof Allen Goodship), and I’m working with Professor Nicolas Stone of Exeter University on non-invasive bast cancer scening.

In addition, I’m collaborating with Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche in Italy to apply the technology to objects of art on microscales. For example, we can scan diffent layers of paint to determine compositional essential in storation and pservation of artefacts.

How will the medical applications benefit patients?

Patient benefit could be enormous. Curnt diagnosis techniques for osteoporosis a around 60-70% accurate as they sense only mineral content. on the other hand has a high specificity for mineral and collagen content — both of which determine bone stngth — and so holds considerable promise for providing improved diagnostic accuracy. could also be used to classify bast or pro tumours as malignant or benign without needle biopsy. This would duce patient stss and save medical provider costs.

However, medical problems a challenging as the human body is complex and variable. These applications a probably still 7-10 years away.

Why do you do this search?

This is whe my passion and intest — I’m very excited about what I do.

“As You Push the Boundaries of Technology and Make New Discoveries, the End Goal Always Changes. This Is the Nice Thing about Science.”