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Proengin is a leader in chemical and biological detection thanks to its flame spectrometry technology that ensures fast and reliable detection. Today, more than 70 countries rely on Proengin for chemical and biological protection, from small handheld AP4C detectors to vehicle- and building- mounted AP4C-V and AP4C-F detectors. ESD spoke with Eric Damiens, Vice-President Marketing & Sales at Proengin.

Photo: Peter Bossdorf

ESD: What kind of chemical and biological threats do troops have to be aware of in theatres of operation?
Damiens: There was a time when a chemical war was to take place against the armies of the Warsaw Pact along the Elbe and the list of chemical warfare agents was limited to four or five gases. At that time, the biological threat was purely theoretical.

This scenario is obviously outdated and a chemical attack can take place anywhere, can take place without weapons and may involve toxic products of industrial origin. In recent years we have also had to learn the term PBA: Pharmaceutical active ingredients. The chemical defence standards defined in the NATO triptych are therefore outdated.
There are no more CWA detectors, only chemical detectors. I think the term CWA is obsolete.

ESD: What capability portfolio does Proengin offer to military and civilian customers?
Damiens: CBRN threat management is what we want to offer to our customers. A simple chemical or bio alarm is not enough. Sharing Information and raw data, situation awareness, assistance to decision-makers are key in threat management.

Next to our traditional hand-held, vehicle-mounted or 24/7 operation detectors, we offer a range of services that allow the user to be informed about the situation and how to proceed so they can decide what to do.

Nowadays, military and civilian customers are exposed to similar threats, but have different ways of responding to them. We need to adapt our systems to different user groups.

ESD: All of your chemical detection devices are based on flame spectrometry technology. Can you briefly elaborate on this technology?
Damiens: The science of flame spectrometry is very simple. Burning an element will emit a light. The wavelength of the light is specific to the atoms that are burned. Astronomy has been using that science for ages to determine the types of gases they find in stars. We are doing the same in our detectors. The real know-how of Proengin has been our capacity to use that science to find several gases simultaneously and at very low concentrations.
We have chosen to detect phosphorus, sulphur, arsenic and the chemical liaison HNO for chemical detection and potassium and sodium for biological detection. It enables us to be able to detect thousands of gases without having to upgrade any library.

This is why our AP4C product range can detect any Novichok agent without any upgrade as we detect phosphorus inside all the Novichok molecules. Anyone who has purchased an AP4C 10 years ago, can detect Novichok and Fentanyl today.

ESD: What are the particular challenges when detecting biological agents? How do you deal with them? What technologies do these threats implement?
Damiens: The concept of biological detection is quite complex. There is no physical technology allowing to differentiate a non-pathogenic bacteria from a pathogenic bacteria. Only bio processes such as immuno-assay process, PCR or DNA analysis can do that. It takes time and it requires a sample. It is therefore impossible to do a continuous monitoring of an area.

Technologies such as flame spectrometry are there to tell the user when he should take a sample and make a test. However, the main challenge is to reduce the cost of this operation. Our AP4C-VB is a big step in this direction as we are able to use only one sensor to simultaneously perform chemical and biological detection.

ESD: Reliable performance and a superior durability are basic requirements for CBRN response equipment. How do you ensure that your products meet these requirements and how do your devices perform in this regard?
Damiens: There are two factors allowing our detectors to reach this high degree of reliability and durability: Flame spectrometry is a simple science and does not require complex assemblies of many high tech elements. Our know-how is much more in the process, the settings and the algorithms than in the parts themselves.

Proengin is not a manufacturer of lab equipment trying to adapt their products to a military field use. From the first sketch, our products are designed to be used in harsh field conditions.

Proengin has designed military field products since 35 years and this experience is recognised by our users.

ESD: Proengin devices are in use in many countries. What markets / regions do you focus on?
Damiens: Proengin has always been active on the global market and our detectors are in service in 70 countries on all continents. We are opening markets in new countries every year. This year we had our first contract in Uzbekistan and our sales in GCC countries have jumped. Besides our traditional markets Australia, the US and India, we have just signed a record contract in our own country, France. However, our expansion will be based not only on a geographic expansion but on new markets like critical infrastructures, vehicles and Navy Ships in countries where we have already users.

ESD: How much does Proengin invest in R&D? What are the R&D priorities of your company? Do you cooperate with scientific institutions?
Damiens: Proengin was born as a R&D company in the seventies. Our first serial product was launched only in the 1990s. At least one third of our staff is working in the R&D department. We are obviously focussing on improving flame spectrometry technology that is the core of the company, but we are also working on the ergonomics of the detector and connectivity technologies that we develop with partners.

Usually, we use our own money to fund R&D to remain independent but we are cooperating with prestigious scientific institutions such as TNO and FOI to exchange information and to perform specific testing.

This interview was conducted by Peter Bossdorf.