Silicon Valley may remain a leader in computer technology, but BYU students and professors are working together to make Utah Valley the place for cutting-edge developments in analytic chemistry.
Torion Technologies, an American Fork-based company that specializes in miniaturizing lab equipment, got its start at BYU before the operation outgrew the university and moved to its present location. Although the company is recognized today as a leader in portable mass spectrometry technology, the company continues to work closely with BYU professors and students, giving the university access to some of the most cutting-edge technologies available, as well as working with students to develop new technologies and methods for their use.
“The life blood of a company is innovation, when you’re in our industry,” Doug Later, president of Torion Technologies, said, adding that their continuous work with some of BYU’s best students is what has allowed them to continue to solve problems with innovative solutions. “That’s the paradigm we’ve set up for this company — renewing innovation.”
Torion currently has two graduate students at BYU working with them to develop a device to take air samples for the miniaturized gas chromatography-mass spectrometry technology Torion has already made available. Other student collaborations include working with biology students at BYU to develop a method for using Torion’s technologies to detect biological compounds, and more than half of the company’s 25 employees are BYU alumni.
The company itself was founded by Milton Lee, BYU’s H. Tracy Hall professor of chemistry. Later, who had helped to launch one of Lee’s earlier entrepreneurial endeavors, also helped found Torion.
The idea wasn’t a new one when the company was founded, Ed Lee, Torion’s vice president and Milton Lee’s brother, explained. It was apparent that a portable mass spectrometer would benefit several industries, and multiple other researchers were attempting to develop a similar device when Torion’s founders decided to take a shot at creating the technology.
“We just thought we could do better,” Ed Lee said.
Torion’s central instrument, a portable GC-TMS that breaks down samples and analyzes a substance’s chemical fingerprint to determine what chemicals are present, has undergone multiple changes in the years since the first prototype was produced at BYU, and a new version, called the Tridion, is slated for release at the end of 2011. The new device is equipped with its own touch screen and can search for a single chemical compound with 100 percent accuracy, according to Torion research scientist Joe Oliphant. It operates on battery power, and weighs 32 pounds.
Additionally, the Tridion requires no scientific background to operate, according to Tiffany Wirth, who works in marketing at Torion.
“Someone with no scientific background can go out with this device and identify chemicals by name,” Wirth said, adding that although the Tridion was built with military uses in mind, the same device can be modified for use in environmental fields and even in detecting flavors and fragrances.
Because of the specialized nature of Torion’s products, Wirth said almost all of the research, engineering and programming that goes into their instruments takes place in-house.
“A lot of what we do is so technical and unique that when we try to out-source things, it doesn’t work,” Wirth said.
Completing such a wide range of tasks requires finding employees from a variety of backgrounds, according to Wirth, who said they have hired people with degrees in everything from chemistry and engineering to computer science. She said those students interested in working for Torion or a similar company should look for opportunities to get involved in the industry while in college, in addition to looking into the grants and fellowships that would allow them to gain graduate-level education.