Gas detection firm averting tragedy

Last updated 05:00 17/12/2014
Alan Dove

Dr Ojas Mahapatra

Alan Dove
Photonic Innovations launches its first device, an ammonia detector, in February targeting businesses that use the gas for cool storage.
Alan Dove
Photonic Innovations' gas detectors use laser diodes, the technology not only increases workplace safety but can potentially save businesses hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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Dunedin startup Photonic Innovations doesn't have to do a hard sell to convince Kiwi firms its groundbreaking laser gas detection products are a good idea.

In the past 10 years, New Zealand has had two horrifying examples where gas leaks in the workplace have led to tragedy. The methane explosion which claimed the lives of 29 workers at Greymouth's Pike River Mine in 2010 was found by a Royal Commission of Inquiry to be caused, in part, by an inefficient gas monitoring system. Similarly, a Department of Labour investigation into the 2008 explosion at Icepak Coolstores in Tamahere, which killed one firefighter and seriously injured seven others, revealed worn out gas sensors had let a massive propane leak go unnoticed for weeks.

New Zealand's legislation surrounding gas monitoring is being reviewed under the Health and Safety Reform Bill, but Kiwi industry is also pushing for innovation to protect employees working in potentially hazardous atmospheres.

Otago University spinout firm Photonic Innovations has partnered with meat producers Silver Fern Farms and Tegel New Zealand to trial its next generation gas detection devices. Powered by laser diodes, the technology not only increases workplace safety but can potentially save businesses hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"Gas detection in New Zealand has come up in a big way because businesses are becoming conscious about workplace safety. It's a trend that's happening all around the world," says Dr Ojas Mahapatra, CEO of Photonic Innovations.

"We saw that there were major problems with what was available, and our technology can save businesses money from lost production and more importantly offer peace of mind," he says.

Gone are the days where gas detection meant a canary in a cage. The global detection industry is worth around $1 billion says Mahapatra, and the applications are much broader than the mining industry. A finalist in the New Zealand Innovators Awards and a Rising Star in the Deloitte Fast 50 list last month, Photonic Innovations' technology can be used to detect any type of gas. Common applications include testing for vapours such as ammonia and carbon dioxide in food and beverage production.

The company's patented laser spectroscopy technology aims to replace the older style electro-chemical gas detection devices commonly found in New Zealand workplaces. 

Mahapatra says older model chemical gas detection devices are less accurate than his company's technology as they are prone to corrosion and require constant replacement, testing and recalibration to stay functional. The consequences of not testing detectors are huge - in both the Tamahere and Pike River disasters monitoring systems were found to have not had the appropriate maintenance. 

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Photonic Innovations' technology does not deteriorate over time, and there are no maintenance costs.

"The cost of the [chemical] detectors in the market is around $2000 -$2500, and our testers cost about $3,000- $3500. So there's an additional $1000 cost for a firm, but you don't have to replace sensors so often and if you look at the whole life cost of the detector you are already saving 70 -80 per cent," Mahapatra says.

While there's big business in the mining sector, the company is first setting its sights on the domestic food manufacturing market. The firm is launching its first device, an ammonia detector, in February targeting businesses that use the gas for cool storage.

"In New Zealand, the ammonia gas detection market alone is worth around $1.5 million and in Australia it's around $15 million per annum," Mahapatra says.

"We wanted to pick a gas that was big enough for us to go in and make some money and build a plan and a catalogue of products.

"We can always go into mining and oil and gas, but we can't just walk in and sell a detector like that. You have to have a good history, and there are already bigger names out there who have been selling devices to oil and gas for the past 100 years.

"Ammonia is still a big problem. It's toxic, it strips the tissue from your lungs, it affects the eyes, and in most cases if you are exposed to a high amount of it it's fatal.  If you have ammonia leaking within the cool store, it will spoil everything that is stored inside."

Time is money on a production line, and shutting down a facility for safety checks can cost big bucks. Older model chemical detectors are prone to false alarms, and in facilities such as Tegel's which produce around 200kg of meat an hour, lost production can sometimes sting a firm for around tens of thousands once you factor in employee overtime. 

Silver Fern Farms' Balclutha meatworks processes around 80,000 cattle and a million sheep and lamb per year, and is currently trialling Photonic Innovations' system. The plant's engineering manager, Marthinus Hendriks, says engineers at the firm currently do regular manual gas checks, but he is eagerly awaiting the results of the trial to see if it can improve its monitoring systems.

"In our refrigeration plant rooms we've got ammonia in there, it's a high health and safety risk, and we want to protect our employees. There is a need to have some warning systems in place so we can alarm staff to evacuate the area and you can further improve it to shut rooms down and isolate areas," Hendriks says.

"[Older technologies] are prone to false alarms and we hear people start to ignore them… Currently our [ammonia gas detectors] are not wired into our main automatic evacuation alarm system because of the instability of devices, but with newer technology like this that's more do-able because they are more reliable."

Founded in 2005, Photonic Innovations was put on ice for several years after its pioneering scientist moved overseas. "We had all the international patents for the technology, all it needed was a good management team to drive it," Mahapatra says. The firm was woken from the dead when investment firm Powerhouse Ventures and the government's New Zealand Venture Investment Fund injected some much-needed capital. It was full steam ahead when physicist Mahapatra left his role at Powerhouse Ventures to steer the firm full-time.

After taking its ammonia detector to market, Mahapatra plans to launch an oxygen/carbon dioxide device, targeting wineries and facilities with carbonated beverage facilities.

"In Australia they have passed a law where many [buildings] have to fit oxygen detection devices. There are actually lots of accidents in wineries, for instance, because the thing about carbon dioxide is you can't smell so it makes it much more dangerous than other gasses."

To help the company scale up and launch into new markets, Mahapatra is looking to raise $1-$2 million next year from New Zealand investors. It then hopes it will have enough successful case studies underway to start drilling into the oil and mining market.

"We want to become a threat to the bigger companies who all know that laser spectroscopy is the new big thing," Mahapatra says.

"We could easily be acquired by a big company; that's probably the easiest way for us to get results for the shareholders. But the business also has good potential 

to grow in New Zealand because we know we have a good product."

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