Picarro heads to the supermarket to analyze nature's barcode

Picarro is ready for its next big test.

The Santa Clara-based company makes unique gas analyzers that environmental heavyweights use to test air quality, measure greenhouse-gas emissions and find gas leaks, among other things. Now, the environmental-metric company is hoping to expand into other markets, including possible future use in grocery stores. Its analyzers can tell where food comes from, which could help determine whether a product marked "fair trade" actually originated in a fair-trade region, for example. They also may soon be able to test whether produce is really organic or not.

Iain Green, director of marketing for Picarro, said the company's analyzers can be used for a broad range of products. "The best part of this is that (the analyzers) are creating transparency in the type of data that people can see about products that are all around them," Green said. "We all need food; we've all got medicine in our cabinets. So good analytical data can be extremely useful."

Testing organic food is one area that the company said it may be interested in exploring.

"I think it's going to be an important area," said Green. "Organic is best told by the fertilizer you put on the product, which is best analyzed using nitrogen isotopes. We don't have a commercial analyzer to do that yet, but we are very involved with nitrogen isotopes for atmospheric studies right now."

The Picarro analyzer, the size of a bread box, works much like the nose -- sniffing the gases in the atmosphere and detecting the origins. The analyzer can do this by twirling the gases around an optic laser that sits in the box and then taking measurements.

"It's a very simple technology to grasp once you get it," Green said. "but it's also extremely useful for high precision measurement.

Spun off from Stanford University, the nifty analyzers are a long way away from their early days.

"We really got started in the atmospheric environment," Green said. "Those analyzers went on mountaintops and islands and all kinds of places all over the world. That gave us a start in building extremely robust and rugged small devices."

Picarro analyzers are mobile and can be accessed remotely

"Customers will take these they'll take them out to remote locations and they'll plug them in, set them running, and then leave them and they'll log into them remotely over the internet to check how they are doing," Green said.

Origin of food is an area of focus for the company.

"We're taking that geographical label -- we call it nature's bar code -- and we're able to test a food's supply chain," Green said. "We're able to say, 'Yes, you are getting corn-based sugar from the Midwest,' or 'No, you are not getting cane-based sugar from Hawaii,' for example. You're able to test the integrity of the supply chain."

Currently, Picarro is in discussion with food cooperatives about the potential use of analyzers in that area.

"We've talked to food cooperatives," he said. "They’re interested in understanding how to deploy this to protect their members and brands and products."

Green said that although it is a long way off, the company could eventually see developing a product for consumers to use in the supermarket.

"In the end, you're going to find devices which are more point-of-sale," he said. "Perhaps a consumer can go to a supermarket and pick up an apple, and they can put that apple stalk in some way into a scanner and verify that label is correct.... It's a long time into the future, but it's possible. Consumers are already used to scanning bar codes with iPhone apps. Perhaps consumers can start doing some chemical testing way down the line as well."

Photo of a supermarket by Jonathan Feinstein via Shutterstock.com.