An idea not to be sniffed at

February 2, 1996

A student's brainwave has given dairies an electronic nose for business. It also won him the Business and Technology Education Council student of the year award.

Nicholas Aikenhead saw an AromaScanner on television and realised the champagne-sniffing device could be used to "smell" milk for contamination - a job that was previously carried out by human "blood hounds" or through much more involved procedures.

As a result 25-year-old Mr Aikenhead, who was on a higher national diploma course in food technology with business studies at Reaseheath College in Cheshire, has landed himself a job with Midlands-based company AromaScan which makes the equipment.

He said: "I thought it was time to get my career together and having realised that I was interested in the food industry I then found this BTEC course which fitted the bill perfectly. I was watching a TV programme about an AromaScanner that tests champagne. As soon as I saw it I knew it had potential.

"I was looking for something for my major technical project so I approached the firm, suggesting that it could be used in the food industry. One of the most viable products that came up immediately was milk."

Milk can sometimes be tainted, in taste and smell, by chemicals through cattle feed, cleaning fluids and other substances. Testing involved teams of sniffers and occasionally gas chromatography analysis, but these methods were unreliable, expensive and time consuming.

The beauty of the AromaScanner, Mr Aikenhead said, is that it can "sniff" samples in their raw state with no prior preparation as laboratory samples. The equipment uses an array of polymer sensors to pick up the volatiles, or smell molecules, which it can then translate into unique smell fingerprints.

If the fingerprint does not match the recognised fingerprint then the equipment can isolate the tainting agents and therefore identify them. Mr Aikenhead said: "Each smell has a unique fingerprint and the artificial neural network software means that we can teach the system to recognise certain smells."

The AromaScanner was developed following research by Krishna Persaud of the department of instrumentation and analytical science at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. It has vast potential for the whole of the food industry, and beyond.

BTEC spokesmen say that they were impressed by the motivation shown by Mr Aikenhead and all runners-up and category winners.

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