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Technology

Deep look

Innovation reduces time spent in assessing sample substances

EDUARDO CESAR Spectrophotometer does chemical readings at all wavelengths of the spectrumEDUARDO CESAR

In less than five seconds, it is possible to detect the presence of algae in drinking water, or to assess whether a medicine contains exactly the compounds it announces, such as vitamins or caffeines, besides finding out the quantity of each one of them. This quickness is a result of an innovation called spectral scanning, developed for spectrophotometers, instruments that carry out a chemical analysis by means of the interaction of electromagnetic radiation with the substance. This mechanism makes its possible to carry out a reading in all the wavelengths, in the range of the spectrum that goes from ultraviolet to infrared, while other equipment only works on a single wavelength.

The development of this technology put Femto, a family company that was set up in São Paulo, in the contest for a market previously occupied only by the multinationals. Among other applications, the instrument is going to meet the growing demand from the drug industry, a sector that today is under much pressure from the National Agency for Sanitary Surveillance (Anvisa), an organ of the Ministry of Health, to have an efficient control over the stability of the active principles of medicines.

Baptized as 800XI, the spectrophotometer with a pulsed xenon lamp, developed with the support of FAPESP through the Small Business Innovation Research (PIPE) program, has been clocking up successes ever since it was launched last year. Over 30 apparatuses have already been sold in the tender processes in which the company has taken part, which has guaranteed sales in the order of R$ 500,000, 25% of the total revenues obtained in 2002. To manage to arrive at this result, Femto entered competitive calls for tender made by universities, research centers and industries, at a starting price of R$ 11,000 per apparatus, without any accessory, going up to R$ 25,000, in the most complete format. The imported ones with the same level of technology cost about R$ 50,000.

Besides its high resolution, the 800XI model brings software developed in Brazil to give a mathematical treatment to the information. It is equipped with a graphic display and has a connection with a computer to deal with the signal and the data. The pulsed xenon lamp replaces the deuterium/tungsten-halogen pair, normally used in these apparatuses, with the advantage of not needing any moving parts, as the old ones do, besides getting a better level of signal and isolating the light from the environment from the sample compartment.

The manufacturer is not going to stop producing instruments with the single beam technology – in which the analysis is done by means of a single wavelength – a niche abandoned by the big multinationals like Perkin Elmer, Varian and Shimadzu. But they intend to contend for the medium technology market with manufacturers from Korea, France, England and Australia, not only in Brazil, but even abroad. And, within a few years, to join the select group that makes instruments with an extremely advanced technology that involves detectors, amplifiers and converters with a speed in the order of nanoseconds, which only the United States and Japan have.

The company has been accumulating credentials to do so, even before Femto’s inauguration in 1989. Lídio Kazuo Takayama, who divides the company’s partnership with his brother and sister, Francisco and Mary, helped to assemble the first spectrophotometer in Brazil when he was still a physics student at the University of São Paulo, in 1975. From then until now, he has always invested in the development of this kind of equipment, which successfully detects and quantifies elements like chloride, iron and silicon in water; and cyanide, sulfide and ammonia in effluents. It may also be applied in clinical and molecular biochemistry.

Femto’s growth has always been solid and achieved with its own resources. But to guarantee the leap in technology, Lídio resorted to PIPE. The partnership was started in 1998, when the company obtained funding to make feasible the Spectrophotometric Workstation, a piece of equipment for totally automatic analysis, with resources of robotics.

Today, Femto is the leading Brazilian company in the sector, selling over 200 pieces of equipment a year, with sales of R$ 2 million, in a domestic market that consumes between 500 and 750 units a year. Even having grabbed a good share, the company is working on the development of a fluorescence spectrophotometer with a continuous scanning double monochromator, based on a pulsed xenon lamp, also financed by FAPESP. This device is at the prototype stage and detects very low concentrations of given elements, such as aflatoxin, a toxic and carcinogenic fungus that develops in food, such as peanuts. Other markets will be the drugs market and the environmental sphere.

At the same time, Femto is beginning to plan the development of other equipment. One of these is the atomic absorption spectrophotometer with an electrothermal atomizer, based on a tungsten filament, which, amongst other applications, will be sensitive enough to detect the level of lead in the blood or the presence of aluminum in hemodialysis solutions. The study is supported by a partnership with Professor Francisco Krug, of USP’s Nuclear Energy in Agriculture Center (Cena).

Another project that is also in the company’s immediate plans is Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy. The academic side will be up to Professor Célio Pasquini, from the Chemistry Institute of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp). The laser eliminates the need for dissolving the sample, and it therefore produces less shedding of reagents into the environment, besides being quicker and more practical. This technology has been available for only two years in the world market.

Femto intends to master this innovation in four years. “This would make Brazil only six years out of date with relation to movement in the world, compared with being 20 to 30 years behindhand with the new technologies that are mastered today in the Brazilian market.” Lídio Takayama’s ambition goes further: he wants to go into the sectors of biomedical optics and photomedicine, regarded by him as the future market for spectrophotometry.

The Project
Spectrophotometer Based on a Pulsed Xenon Lamp and a Linear Image Sensor (nº 00/07494-9); Modality Small Business Innovation Research Program (PIPE); Coordinator Lídio Kazuo Takayama – Femto; Investment R$ 188,278.00 and US$ 2,543.83

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