Paul van Gerven
16 February

By joining forces, Swiss sensor manufacturer Sensirion and Enschede-based Qmicro aim to accelerate the technological and commercial development of the latter’s online gas composition analysis technology.

Listed Swiss manufacturer Sensirion of flow and environmental sensors has acquired Qmicro, an Enschede-based SME specialized in MEMS-based microtechnology for gas analyses. Unlike most of Sensirion’s existing products, Qmicro’s miniaturized gas chromatographs (GCs) are capable of analyzing gas mixtures, which is exactly what piqued the interest of the Swiss. “The ability to selectively and accurately determine the constituents of gas mixtures is difficult to realize with sensor technology alone. Sensirion, therefore, saw a great opportunity to expand their product portfolio,” explains managing director Mark Kok of Qmicro.

From Qmicro’s perspective, the deal made sense because it will accelerate growth, says Kok. “Technologically, we expect that combining our knowledge in gas chromatography with Sensirion’s expertise in MEMS, industrialization and sensor development allows for further miniaturization. This will facilitate integration in customers’ systems and extend our scope. In addition, we get access to Sensirion’s extended global marketing and sales network.”

Qmicro, founded in 2013 and employing sixteen, will remain in Enschede and become Sensirion’s gas chromatography division.

Real time

Gas chromatography is a tried and tested technique to separate and analyze the components of gases and volatile compounds. Using an inert carrier gas, a sample is led through a coating-lined separation tube called a column. As the sample moves along the column, the interaction with the coating is different for each constituent – some compounds ‘stick’ more to it than others. Thus, the components move through the column at different speeds, resulting in their separation. Detection at the outlet is commonly performed by measuring differences in thermal conductivity relative to the carrier gas. A well-calibrated gas chromatograph can be used to identify compounds by the time they take to pass through the column.

A gas chromatograph is typically a desktop instrument and, depending on the nature of the sample, requires up to 30 minutes to complete a measurement. Using MEMS technology, Qmicro managed to put the core of a GC system on a chip, bringing down the size of an instrument down to the size of a lunch box, while performing analyses in as little as 30 seconds. This allows for near-continuous monitoring of gas mixtures, without compromising the quality of the analyses.

Qmicro
Credit: Qmicro

This feature is very useful in, for example, natural gas distribution networks. “It’s important to monitor and, if needed, adjust the composition and caloric value of natural gas. Traditionally, this is done by taking samples and analyzing them in the lab, which can take up to a day. Meanwhile, the composition of the gas mixture may have changed already. Using our product, necessary adjustments can be made almost in real time,” explains Kok.

“Particularly in Germany, blending natural gas with sustainably produced hydrogen is being considered as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This increases the need for online monitoring. This is also the case with biogas production: the composition of the gas needs to adhere to standards before being introduced in the distribution network.” Other application areas of Qmicro’s miniaturized gas analyzers include industrial process control and monitoring air pollution.

Strategic

Qmicro ‘grew up’ in the incubator program of Demcon. The system designer, also from Enschede, acquired a minority share, offered access to its facilities and provided management and development support. In return, Qmicro’s employees got involved in selected projects of its big brother. CEO Dennis Schipper of Demcon is happy to have contributed to the maturation of Qmicro. “Our Incubate program is partly driven by a bit of idealism, but there’s also a synergy at work. We can learn from startups and scale-ups and explore new markets through them,” says Schipper.

Demcon intends to invest the proceeds from the sale of its share in new promising startups deemed a good fit. The company mostly focuses on technology that solves societal problems and is particularly interested in startups targeting markets that are of strategic value.