CEO interview: Sensor boss seeks partners for expansion

CEO interview: Sensor boss seeks partners for expansion

Interviews |
By Peter Clarke

Weir is now seeking partners for the ten-year old manufacturer of CO2 sensors to help it break into new markets, particularly automotive. Weir reckons the solid technical background and design and assembly experience that Gas Sensing Solutions (GSS) has amassed means it is well placed to continue growing.

The company was founded in 2006 with investment fromTweed Renaissance Investment Capital and The Scottish Co-Investment Fund. Trading began in 2008 with an initial focus on safety, spillage, flue gas analysers, internal air quality (IAQ) and the heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) sectors. GSS’ technology is based on non-dispersive mid-range infrared light where CO2 absorbs light at 4.2- to 4.4-micron wavelength.

In fact, mid-IR light absorption is good for detecting multiple gases; from water vapor, nitrogen-containing molecules, hydrocarbons such as methane, Weir told eeNews Europe. However, how those gases are handled depends largely on such issues as concentration levels and accuracy and calibration requirements. GSS has a short path NDIR approach when measuring CO2 in relatively high concentrations and a reflective circular path to maximize path length through the gas for measuring low concentrations.  

Cozir ambient air optics with long optical path for low concentrations. Source: GSS.

The advantage GSS has is that it designs and manufactures its own III-V compound semiconductor LEDs and photodiodes and can tune the output, Weir said, adding GSS is the only sensor company to do this.

Next: broad spectrum wastes energy

Other companies that use the same principle shine broad-spectrum light and then filter it down and waste a lot of energy as a result, Weir said. Also filament/microheater-based sources take time to warm up and stabilize minimizing speed of operation. As a result, GSS can offer CO2 sensors that can be battery powered and sensors for applications where speed of response is key such as medical equipment.

Immediate application domain for GSS sensors. Source: GSS.

In 2010, GSS Launched Cozir, claiming it to be the world’s lowest power consumption NDIR CO2 sensor and in 2012 introduced SprintIR, which it claims is the world’s fastest response NDIR CO2 sensor. In last month GSS launched the SprintIR6S unit that can take 20 CO2 readings per second (see Sprint provides faster CO2 sensing).

So far so good, but does the applicability of NDIR absorption mean GSS will be expanding into detecting concentrations of other gases?

Application friendly

Weir said that with the number of applications for CO2 opening up rapidly that was not GSS primary goal. “Rather we want to make our components more application friendly.”

GSS is already providing small PCBs in moulded housings to contain LED, photodiode, gas chamber and conditioning circuitry. Making sensors more application specific could mean the addition of additional physical features such as temperature and humidity sensing in some applications or the addition of microcontroller die and wireless communications such as ZigBee and Lora for IoT applications.

Weir acknowledged the possibility but said: “At present we are sensor component manufacturer. You have to ask at what point do you compete with customers.”

Weir added that GSS, which employs 28 people, is already in the midst of a doubling of production capacity. It now has two epitaxial wafer machines installed at the West of Scotland Science Park northwest of Glasgow.

Epitaxial wafer machine. Source: GSS.

The epitaxial wafer machines allow the laying down of thin layers of highly complex compounds of aluminium, gallium, indium, arsenic and antimony of differing proportions, usually on a GaAs substrate. Doping is done with beryllium to form p-type regions and tellurium to form n-type regions (see A novel solid state non-dispersive infrared CO2 gas sensor compatible with wireless and portable deployment).

“One of the machines is for us exclusively and we rent time out on the other to academic institutions,” said Weir. But this also means that GSS is in a position to cope with any uptick in business. Backend dicing and packaging is contracted out and then the components come to Cumbernauld for assembly and calibration.

Next: smartphone ready?

Could such components find their way into mobile phones where some vendors have been touting environmental sensors and environmental sensor hubs as the next wave of sensorification? “Although NDIR is accurate and power efficient it is still fairly bulky,” said Weir “While GSS offers the most power efficient and smallest fitting it in the profile of smartphone would still be a challenge,” he said. That is not the direction GSS is pursuing right now preferring to stay in the camp of lower volume and higher value engineering, Weir said.

However, from instrumentation and industrial applications it is a shorter hop to automotive sensing where there is a safety case for CO2 measurement in the cabin to guard against drowsiness. “Automotive is a market we will be looking to address, either by licensing or partnership,” said Weir. He added that it would be unwise for GSS to try and enter that market without a partner that has automotive supply chain experience.

Meanwhile Weir has to navigate GSS through the rapids of sensor industry consolidation. In the last couple of years, a number of smaller sensing companies across Europe have been swept up by larger companies seeking to build a broad portfolio. In June 2016

Austria’s AMS alone acquired AppliedSensor GmbH in June 2014, an environmental sensor business unit from NXP Semiconductors NV in July 2015, and gas sensor company Cambridge CMOS Sensors Ltd. in June 2016.

Weir’s response was that such hazards – or potential pay days, depending on your point of view – always exist and that his focus is on continuing to build a successful engineering company that will have global scale and reach.

Related links and articles:

A novel solid state non-dispersive infrared CO2 gas sensor compatible with wireless and portable deployment

White paper on NDIR CO2 sensors

News articles:

Sprint provides faster CO2 sensing

Vital signs sensor could transform smartphones

AMS set to buy German gas sensor firm

AMS buys environmental sensor business from NXP

AMS buys Cambridge sensor startup

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