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Automatic and robotic analysis

A workstation accelerates chemical analysis of various substances

ED. 53 | MAY 2000


Forget about the traditional figure of the laboratory technician specialized in the analysis of foods  and other substances, always busy with pipettes, test tubes, burettes and the tip of a Bunsen burner. Already there is available for the professionals of this sector the Spectrophotometric Workstation, a chemical analyzer totally automatic and robotized, capable of quantifying, for example, the presence of chloride, iron, nitrate, sulfate and silicon in the water, or to detect cyanide, sulfide, phosphate, and ammonia in domestic or industrial effluents. Moreover, it allows the measuring of the concentration of calcium and phosphors in animal feed or calcium, magnesium and phosphors  in plants, as well as lots of other applications. Everything carried out in less time that the traditional methods.

The Station was developed by Femto, a company located in the city of São Paulo, under the coordination of the physicist Lídio Kazuo Takayama. The project Spectrophotometric Workstation had the support of FAPESP within the program of  Small Business Research Innovation  Program (PIPE), through a total financing of R$ 114,000 distributed over two phases. Up until the month of April, Femto had sold two stations. One to the Foundation of the Environment of the State of Goiás (Femago) and another to the Laboratory of Animal Reference of the Ministry of Agriculture (LARA). They are two examples which demonstrate the station’s wide field of action. It can serve industry, environment protection organs, research institutes and diverse companies who carry out the analysis of food, soil and plants or which work in the area of water treatment.

The use of the workstation, computerized and robotized, gives a series of advantages in relation to manual methods. The first is a reduction in operational and management costs. The automation brings a series of benefits, such as an increase in the speed of the processing, control of quality almost in real time, mistakes reduction, a  security increase, reduction of the discard of chemical products and an improvement in communications and services.

Laboratory analysis using the non-automatic spectrophotometer is still widely used. However, the robotic stations with good support of software will have an important role, above all in laboratories which work with large quantities of analysis.

Quick actions
Femto began its activities with the development and manufacture of spectrophotometers of visible and ultraviolet light. Afterwards, it was the first to make in Brazil the infrared spectrophotometer, which does not require reagents. The company, since its foundation in 1989, has striven to achieve the same level of technological development of its corresponding foreign competitors. The company efforts are  concentrated in the  product development, assembling and quality control, leaving the manufacturing of the components and equipment to outsourced  suppliers.

Femto is a family structutred company, formed by the association of the coordinator of the project, Lídio Takayama, with two other siblings , Francisco and Mary. One of the functions of the three is to always follow the main academic and industrial advances in Brazil and abroad.

The idea of the automatic spectrophotometric station has followed Lidio since the beginning of the decade of the 80s. With the invention of the system Flow Injection Analysis (FIA), laboratory analysis of  food components or of effluents (domestic residues or  those liberated by industrial production) gained in efficiency in comparison with the traditional methods of manipulation.

Saving time
In the FIA technique, the  analysis object is placed in a tube containing a reagent and afterwards redirected to a detector. Nevertheless, there was a problem which disturbed Lídio Takayama. The apparatus set up to conduct the analysis was not easily interchanged in operations involving different types of reagents and samples. Thus, if after a test to detect the presence of sulfate, it was necessary to analyze for the presence of chloride, it would be necessary to remount the apparatus with a new configuration. The process demanded  a lot of work. Hence, since the conception of the workstation, the function of the operator is limited to setting a new programming of  the device computer when there is the necessity of an other chemical reaction.

This saves a lot of  time and  products in relation to previous spectrophotometers. Lídio Takayama says that an analysis of the chemical oxygen demand (COD), fundamental in environmental water analysis, was ready in only 12 minutes using the new machine.

Until September of this year, when the second phase of the projects finishes, new tests should be concluded, such as the total organic carbon analyzers (TOC) in effluents, to determine the presence of fats in soybeans or  wheat bran and to measure the level of proteins in food in general, through the presence of nitrogen. The time estimated for all of this analysis is less than 15 minutes.

Though it is still not totally finalized, the workstation of Femto has begun to win over its first possible customers in countries such as France and Canada. Meanwhile, the commercial prospects of the Brazilian company are very attractive. The specifications and characteristics of the machine keep it at a high competitive level, with a lower price in relation to those of foreign competitors.

New businesses
Since the apparatus is useful in various field of industrial activity,  Lídio estimates sales of 6 units this year, increasing afterwards to sales of 10 to 12 units per year. The average price of each unit will be R$35,000, a value higher than initially forecast, but much below the price of the competitors. To meet  the new demand, Femto recently hired a new employee and is studying  possibly hiring two more. Lídio even emphasized that “without the involvement of FAPESP it would have been very difficult to finance the project, given the present  cost of borrowing money in Brazil.”

Dr. Lídio Kazuo Takayama, 51 years of age, graduated in physics at the University of São Paulo (USP). Did post-graduation at the Technology Institute of Aeronautics (ITA).

Spectrophotometric Workstation (nº 97/07352-5); Modality Research Awards – PIPE; Coordinator Lídio Kazuo Takayama; Investiment R$ 114.741,00

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