Montreal firm Photon etc., a specialist in optics and photonics instrumentation, collaborates regularly with researchers from the Université de Montréal, and for good reason: until recently, its offices were in the university’s J.-Armand Bombardier building, which houses an incubator and laboratories dedicated to nanoscience and nanotechnology. This is where Photon etc. and Professor Richard Martel, a specialist in nanotechnology, began their collaboration.
These fruitful scientific exchanges have given birth to a new technology: Raman nanotracers that use carbon nanotubes. Photon etc. and Univalor recently signed an agreement for the commercialization of this technology, invented by Professor Richard Martel and which is already expected to have many business applications.
Carbon nanotubes and Raman imaging: a bright technology marriage
“We know that every atom, every molecule, has a light spectrum of its own,” says Bernard-Alexandre Gaulin, Director of Sales and Marketing at Photon etc. “By putting a particle called a marker on an object that we want to observe, we can decode the light signals of its components with imagers designed for this purpose and understand the composition of the object. This technique is used in many areas—for example, to identify the components of a protein, a textile, a star or even an explosive.”
Photon etc. is a pioneer in hyperspectral imaging. In collaboration with researchers from the Université de Montréal, the firm has developed Raman imaging spectroscopy that reduces the time needed to read light spectra while maintaining high spatial and spectral resolution. “Currently, fluorescence markers are those most commonly used in the market, but those markers are imprecise and often unstable under strong illumination. Their light spectrum is very broad, which restricts the number of objects that can be observed simultaneously,” says Gaulin. “On the other hand, the Raman signal—which provides information on the vibrational transitions of molecules—is very specific. It allows us to observe several hundred markers at once and multiply the speed with which we analyze the objects observed. Our results indicate that the Photon Raman imager is 10 to 1,000 times quicker than the other technologies available in the market.”
From nanotubes to nanotracers
Professor Richard Martel of the Université de Montréal is a worldwide specialist in carbon nanotubes. Over the last 20 years, he has made major breakthroughs related to the electrical and optical properties of nanotubes, and their application. “Through this collaboration with Photon etc. to develop Raman imager spectroscopy, we discovered that it is possible to use carbon nanotubes to make a molecular dye container to form a stable optical assembly for use in Raman imaging. The discovery is a specific blend of various dyes in nanotubes that allows us to amplify the Raman signal to levels that are very useful for imaging,” says Martel. “In addition, each nanotracer produces a unique Raman spectrum associated with the dyes used, so the light signal is like a digital fingerprint. There is an infinite number of possible combinations of dyes, which makes it nearly impossible to reproduce or copy the signature of a nanotracer without knowing its exact composition.”
At Photon etc., they see great market potential for Professor Martel’s nanotracers. In combination with Photon’s Raman imager, nanotracers could find users in the biomedical field, for example. “Each type of nanotracer can be programmed to identify a specific biological target,” says Gaulin. “Due to the narrow spectrum of light produced by the Raman signal, a large number of markers can be deposited on cells or bacteria, and can be detected or analyzed simultaneously.”
Raman nanotracers, partly because of the unique signature that can be assigned to them, could also have a bright future in the product authentication industry. “Nanotracers can be mixed with ink, resin or any polymer. A unique nanotracer could be integrated into each unit of a product order to detect the origin or authenticity of the product, explains Thomas Martinuzzo, Director, Business Development at Univalor. Given the issues of counterfeiting and traceability that several major industries and businesses around the world face, we believe that Raman nanotracers can find their place in the market.”
The technology has received a grant through the Program " Idea to Innovation / Phase IIb " from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) to carry out the project entitled "Raman nanotracers using functionalized carbon nanotubes for hyperspectral Raman imaging."