By producing a natural and safe alternative to X-ray, GScan is attracting a lot of interest from European, Japanese and US companies, all thrilled by this new technology’s opportunities. Turning so-far wasted cosmic radiation into a high-demand and billions-worth solution is a remarkable way to solve problems in many sectors.
How it all began
GScan’s innovation has its roots in a project by another Estonian company GoSwift. The company started to develop a biometric and fully automated border-crossing solution for travellers in vehicles. Naturally, in the case of an automated solution, one should ask: “But how do we know how many people are in a car?”
Märt Mägi, GoSwift’s development manager, suggested that this could be done using muon tomography. A technique that uses muons from natural cosmic rays to create 3D images of substances they pass through. Contrary to X-ray, muon tomography is completely harmless – the natural cosmic rays it uses are all around us everyday.
Hannes Plinte, CEO of GoSwift, contacted Madis Kiisk, a researcher from the University of Tartu, and later Andi Hektor, a researcher from the National Institute of Chemical and Biological Physics, about the idea. Soon, both researchers fell so in love with the idea that they joined the development project. The core founder team of GScan was formed.
By 2018-2019, the idea had evolved to the point where the new company GScan OÜ was founded. The first patent was submitted in 2018. The lab prototype was ready in 2020, opening the doors to the challenging journey towards developing the production technology.
It has been an exciting journey full of ups and downs. However, in December 2022, the company opened its first 900-square-metre pilot plant in Tartu, Estonia. In the same month, the first business contract was signed, providing the first commercial revenue for GScan.
Million possibilities and details
“The things we are doing here are not being done anywhere else,” GScan’s CEO Marek Helm describes the breakthrough they have made by rejecting X-ray technology and replacing it with muon tomography.
“For me, in the context of Estonia, this feels like the creation of our e-government. There are million possibilities and details, and it’s an incredibly complex subject, but it has huge potential,” Helm notes.
Andi Hektor, PhD, a founder and the Chair of the Board, says that although X-ray tech is not going away any time soon, GScan has created a safe and more automatic alternative. Actually, more just an alternative – in the case of large objects like tunnels, bridges, and sea containers full of heavy materials or liquids, X-rays cannot penetrate those objects deeply enough. However, natural muon flux can easily go through tens or even hundreds of metres of materials.
You cannot hide anything from it
To understand what GScan has invented, we need to talk about the shortcomings of its competing X-ray technology. X-ray is well known in medicine and in airport security screening, where it produces black-and-white images that have to be analysed by a doctor or security officer to see whether it shows a knife, a gun, a broken bone or something else. But GScan’s solution is more precise – it can detect not just objects but materials: explosives, drugs, rust in steel etc. What is even more important, it can recognise materials fully automatically.
“The problem for customs officers is that prohibited substances can be easily hidden,” Hektor points out. “If you have an oil tanker, you can put the drugs in a plastic bag and drown them in the oil: X-rays can’t see through liquids. Natural muons, on the contrary, are highly penetrative. They can even reach hundreds of metres underground. You can’t hide from it,” Hektor says.
As a computer automatically runs the detection, it minimises the risks of human error. Many errors can occur in the case of X-ray imaging due to human operators interpreting images.
Safety is another crucial advantage of GScan tech. Natural cosmic radiation surrounds us all the time and is harmless to us. Compared to the powerful old-school X-ray scanners (or neutron scanners), which use expensive materials, produce radioactive residues and consume a lot of energy, the GScan solution is safe and much greener. “Our device consumes much less energy, creates no residue, and its maintenance costs are low – it’s true green technology in the world of scanners,” Hektor confirms.
Traditional X-rays cannot penetrate thicker materials – from buildings and bridges to nuclear reactors, wind turbine towers or industrial systems. It can become a problem for large structures where it is necessary to see what is happening inside or behind reinforced concrete or steel frames. Scanning them would let us know what state they are in. After all, you can not drill into them too often, as that would weaken the structure.
Luckily, buildings are not an obstacle for GScan – it can measure their condition easily. “Our technology is the only one that can penetrate very thick materials,” says Hektor.
As there is no one to compete with in the construction sector, not even the X-ray, it is a brand new future market for GScan. They plan to start offering this service in partnership with engineering and quality/safety assurance companies.
“It’s a difficult market because almost no one there has heard of this technology. But the cash flow in the real estate and construction industry is tremendous. In the US, a large bridge collapsed just this winter. Fortunately, no one was killed. Our tech could have avoided this accident by showing what was going on inside and behind the structures earlier,” Hektor believes.
High potential in the security business
In the global security business, GScan sets new standards of what and how it is possible to do.
To explain the novel advantages of customs board practice, we use an example of a truck crossing the state border. According to the current practice of customs control, a truck arrives at a customs point and, in case of suspicion, is directed to a hangar where it is scanned and inspected. The customs officer will probably have to unload and reload the contents to see if there are any grounds for suspicion. If not, it ends up with a big mess, the truck is behind schedule, and the goods may be damaged.
Using GScan’s solution, however, the same truck drives into their scanner tunnel, and the driver doesn’t even have to come out. He hands over his documents, they’ve been checked, and the system analyses the contents of the load and whether it matches the declaration. In simple terms, the vehicle sits between two large detector plates. The rays pass through the first plate and create a 3D image of the objects underneath. Then, the rays refract, and once they reach the bottom plate, the truck’s contents are clear. The angle at which the rays are refracted can tell whether any drugs or explosives are on board.
The current old-school X-ray process takes minutes, sometimes tens of minutes. “It’s easy with trucks, sea containers and postal parcels, and the time advantage is clear there, but scanning people at airports, for example, would be too time-consuming with the old procedures,” Hektor notes. “However, by changing the procedures, we could increase convenience and accuracy there too, for example, by building a corridor scanner a person walks through for two to three minutes, and the security check is done.” All this means it will become almost impossible for criminals to bring anything illegal or criminal across the border.
Helm adds that current X-ray-based systems are also expensive to buy, maintain, and even keep running because every scan has to be interpreted by a human. This is a huge cost for security companies and customs. However, GScan’s solution automatically interprets the result, making the system much cheaper to keep.
In terms of money, the markets mean roughly $15 billion in the security side and approximately another $10+ billion in the construction and civil engineering industry’s safety and quality assurance market.
In the future, GScan tech can be used in the medical field, for example, to detect and monitor bone thinning, osteoporosis, or to do continuous “X-ray” monitoring for some intensive care patients. GScan’s tech does not need a special usage licence and safety personnel involvement like X-ray tech – one can easily set up the equipment in a pharmacy shop or other convenient place.
In space technology, the company signed their first contract with the European Space Agency (ESA) to study the usability of GScan’s muon flux technology for measuring water distribution on the soils of the Moon and Mars. As there is no business yet on Mars or Moon, the project helps to develop a more compact and stable detector system for GScan.
In 2021, the company started a €7.5 million project financed by the EU. The University of Tartu, the Italian company CAEN producing advanced electronics, the German Space Agency, the University of Sheffield and UCLouvain are all on board. The project result will be a truck scanning system installed in the port of Tallinn. The two national R&D projects started in 2022, with a total budget of €2.8 million. In 2022, GScan raised €2 million from Estonian private investors.
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