David Oliver talks to Stefan Sandor, CEO of Serstech AB.
The Swedish-based company Serstech develops and produces handheld Raman Spectrometers that identify hazardous chemicals, explosives and narcotics. The company is part of a consortium that has recently been granted funding from the European Commission. The project aims to develop technologies, based on Raman and Surface Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS), to detect and identify chemical warfare agents and toxic industrial compounds in liquid and gas form.
CBNW: Could you provide us with a short history of your company and how it became involved in the CBRN market?
SS: Almost 20 years ago, the idea to make a small and affordable Raman spectrometer emerged and set the foundation for Serstech. The plan was to make disposable spectrometers that were so sensitive that they could detect airborne traces of chemicals using SERS technology. The spectrometers were as small as a thumbnail and cost only tens of dollars. So, making very small spectrometers at a very low cost has always been a focus of the company.
CBNW: How many staff do you employ and how many are involved in research and development?
SS: Serstech today has 25 employees and most are involved in research and development.
CBNW: Can you explain the products that are marketed under your main instrument and software brands?
SS: The Serstech 100 Indicator is a well-proven handheld Raman instrument that has been available on the market since 2014. The Serstech Arx is a next-generation Raman that contains several industry-first and patented solutions, including an autofocus solution without any moving parts. Both instruments are easy to use and the Arx takes ease of use to a new level, since it allows operation with the single click of a button.
The instruments weigh less than 650 g and can be operated with one hand, leaving the other hand free to handle the sample. Both instruments are handheld Raman instruments, which means that they can quickly, accurately and safely identify more than 14,000 substances – narcotics, explosives, hazardous/TICS, chemical warfare agents, and much more. The user can easily add more substances to the libraries and share these with other users within the organisation.
The ChemDash software connects to the instruments, either wirelessly or by USB cable, and measurements, libraries and user permissions are quickly synced with the software. The software allows the users to create their own custom libraries and these are then easily shared with other instruments and users. Reports are created in an instant and users of both the instruments and the software can be given individual usage privileges.
CBNW: What are the main advantages of your Raman and SERS technologies?
SS: Serstech’s Raman instruments are among the smallest, fastest and most cost effective on the market. The substance libraries have been developed in house by Serstech in close cooperation with police, border control and CBRN teams around the world.
The libraries therefore include high-quality spectra of all relevant substances for the target groups and contain detailed information of each substance, including Globally Harmonized System (GHS) symbols and Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) numbers.
Both the Serstech 100 Indicator and Serstech Arx can identify very small amounts of a sample – down to a milligram of a powder or 300 microlitres of a liquid. Most other handheld Raman instruments require significantly larger amounts. The ability to identify small amounts is especially important when the sample is hazardous or explosive.
Serstech’s instruments can identify samples through transparent or semitransparent packaging, which protects the operator and reduces the risk of contaminating the sample or the instrument. In addition, Raman spectroscopy is nondestructive – that is, it does not affect or consume the sample being analysed.
The patented SERS solution Serstech provides uses three-dimensional oscillation to further amplify the Raman signal and thereby increasing its sensitivity and performance. The SERS solution works equally well with all Serstech’s instruments and typically can identify low concentrations of substances, sometimes down to ppm (parts per million) levels.
The SERS solution is typically also used to identify substances with fluorescence, which normally makes them hard to identify with handheld Raman instruments. Serstech’s factory libraries are updated every quarter and the updates are included for free in any instrument purchase. Serstech is highly responsive to requests for new substances in the libraries. Many new substances are added every quarter based on customer needs.
CBNW: What are the advantages of your products over others in the market?
SS: Serstech’s libraries have been created by our in-house chemists and we work closely with police, customs and defence laboratories to ensure the list of substances is the most relevant and current. We always apply a rigorous quality assurance process to everything we add.
The instruments we provide have been proven in the field for the past six years and everything we have learned has been put into the new Serstech Arx products. Simplicity, speed and precision have been the guiding principles of the design and development of these new instruments.
Serstech Arx is the first instrument to allow operation with a single press of a button, which can be configured based on user preference and SOP. Serstech Arx is also the first instrument to have autofocus, which removes the need for various adapters and automatically removes signal interference introduced by packaging materials. The user interface has been designed from the ground up together with user input – to allow for quick and intuitive use.
Serstech’s SERS kit allows for identification of fluorescent samples of illegal drugs such as heroin and ecstasy. The SERS kit also allows for identification of very low concentrations and in some cases down to PPM level.
CBNW: What percentage of your business is in the defence and security sector?
SS: The majority of our business is within the security sector and our focus is on those who can be exposed to chemical threats of some kind. Our main customer group are police, bomb squads, Hazmat teams, border control, fire departments, military CBRN teams and coast guard.
CBNW: Can you explain what training you offer to customers?
SS: Serstech’s application specialist team has extensive experience and expert-level knowledge of the science, application and usage of Raman instruments. The team provides training on demand in primarily English and Serstech’s 80 local partners provide training in local language and on-site as needed. The training includes introduction and advanced usage of our products, health and safety, handling of samples and containers and much more.
CBNW: To what extent has the Covid pandemic affected your company?
SS: Three of four quarters in 2019 showed above-100% growth and the first quarter of 2020 had almost 100% growth. During the second quarter, our sales came to an abrupt halt and we had our lowest sales numbers in years. The third quarter is, however, back to growth and we expect to continue our high pace of growth in the coming quarters.
CBNW: Where do you see the greatest potential growth sector for your products and services?
SS: We see a continued strong demand in the security industry and expect this demand to continue to drive our high growth in the coming years. The increasing presence of various hazardous chemicals in society will most likely continue to strengthen demand.
Image: The Serstech 100 is used by HAZMAT teams.