Upstarts: Company revolutionizes process for identifying unknown substances

Nov 8, 2013

The devices that Snowy Range Instruments makes are used to identify unknown substances
The devices that Snowy Range Instruments makes are used to identify unknown substances
Credit Willow Belden

In our occasional “Upstarts” series, we’re going to visit a company called Snowy Range Instruments. It’s based in Laramie, and it makes devices that can identify mystery substances. Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow Belden reports.

WILLOW BELDEN: In a large warehouse-like room, Tony Eads sits hunched over a workbench. He’s holding a soldering iron, and working on the control board for a high-tech instrument. At this stage, the device looks kind of like what you might see if you took apart a computer: basically, a green board with a maze of tiny copper-colored components.

(Scraping sound)

TONY EADS: So now I’m just gonna lay a piece of solder on one of the pads here….

BELDEN: When it’s finished, the instrument will be able to identify unknown chemical and biological substances.

Keith Carron is the president of Snowy Range Instruments, the company that makes the devices. He shows me one of the finished products. It’s a blue, palm-sized device with a small door at the top.  He picks up a glass vial containing a white powder and slides it into the opening.

KEITH CARRON: This is a sample.

(Sounds of sample being inserted into instrument)

Snowy Range Instruments President Keith Carron
Snowy Range Instruments President Keith Carron
Credit Willow Belden

CARRON: So this could be the unknown, or something found somewhere.

BELDEN:  So what are you putting in there? What is this – this sample?

CARRON: Well, we’re going to see what it says. So I’m not going to tell you.

BELDEN: In the time it took him to say that, the instrument has analyzed the substance and identified what it is. The answer blinks onto the screen.

CARRON: It’s TNT.

BELDEN: In other words, an explosive material. Carron says there are lots of uses for devices like this.

CARRON: Let’s say a truck crashes on Highway 80 and it’s not clear what the truck is carrying. We can go in with our little devices and analyze it and tell you what’s inside – whether it’s hazardous or not.

BELDEN: That information could help emergency responders figure out how to proceed.

Until recently, to identify unknown materials, you had to send samples to a lab and use an array of different technologies to analyze it. Now, this one small device can do everything, all at once, on site.

A handful of companies across the U.S. now market devices similar to the ones Snowy Range Instruments makes. But Carron was a pioneer in developing the technology. It all started as a result of research he was doing at the University of Wyoming. Carron was, and still is, a chemistry professor there. At the time, he was developing ways to test water for pollutants and was frustrated by the size of the equipment that was available to him.

CARRON: When I came here in 1988 … my instrumentation was the size of a Volkswagon.

BELDEN: That meant he couldn’t take it into the field. And he says having to transport samples back to the lab sometimes affected his results. 

CARRON: That was one of the reasons I started this company – was to have field portable instruments.

Tony Eads works on the control board for a Snowy Range Instruments device
Tony Eads works on the control board for a Snowy Range Instruments device
Credit Willow Belden

BELDEN: Carron’s business has been growing steadily. He has more than a dozen employees, and expects to sell about 100 instruments this year. That might not sound like a lot, but each device costs at least $15,000, so there’s substantial revenue coming in.

His clients range from universities to the military. Carron says the army is hoping to use his instruments to find out if chemical warfare agents are being used, for example in places like Syria. Another client is focused on disease detection. That company plans to use Snowy Range devices in Africa to test people for malaria. Carron says this way, they won’t have to send blood samples off to a lab, so they’ll get instant results.

CARRON: The way it’s currently done, it’s cheaper to buy the medicine for malaria than to have the test. … And so they end up getting treated for a disease they don’t have, and not being diagnosed for a disease they do have.

BELDEN: Industries closer to home also have uses for the devices Carron sells.

MARK PETERMAN: A lot of the recent applications are in oil and gas.

BELDEN: That’s Mark Peterman, the president of a company called OndaVia. OndaVia buys devices from Snowy Range Instruments and adds on an extra attachment that helps detect contaminants in water samples.

MARK PETERMAN: So being able to test water at a well head, if, let’s say, you’re doing fracking operations, or being able to test at a refinery to make … sure that everything is at the right levels. Right now that requires taking a sample and shipping it to a lab and waiting. … We can do that testing with a Snowy Range System and our cartridges we can do it on site. So it can be done right at the well head or right at the refinery.

BELDEN: Tom Johnson with the Wyoming Business Council says businesses like Snowy Range Instruments are really good for the local economy. They provide jobs for highly skilled engineers. And they sell their goods mostly to out-of-state buyers.

TOM JOHNSON: So if you think of your community in Laramie, in this case, of an economic pie, if you will, when you export a good or service outside of the economy, you bring new money in, which increases – in theory – the economic pie for everybody.

BELDEN: And he says when companies like this succeed in a place like Laramie, that encourages even more entrepreneurs, which in turn creates more jobs and helps diversify the economy. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.