908 Devices has a hand-held approach to thwarting chemical attacks

The M908 mass spectrometer device helps Hazmat teams detect chemical toxins (Photo via 908 Devices).
The M908 mass spectrometer device helps Hazmat teams detect chemical toxins (Photo via 908 Devices).

Massive public events like the Boston Marathon, which draw hundreds of thousands of spectators each year, also require elaborate security measures. But the police, fire, and emergency staff who were stationed along the route Monday had a new device helping them protect the public: the M908 mass spectrometer, a locally designed tool that allows Hazmat teams to quickly detect the presence of chemical weapons or other toxic chemicals.

The maker of the game-console-sized gadgets, Boston-based 908 Devices, said Monday that Massachusetts had purchased eight M908s  for use throughout the state. They will be deployed at massive public events like the marathon and the 4th of July fireworks display, and also used whenever Hazmat teams respond to alerts for suspicious packages and other incidents as they occur. Each device costs $50,000, and they are built in a former Army warehouse on Boston Harbor.

Kevin Knopp, the company’s chief executive and founder, said the M908 gives first responders access to chemical-analyzing mass-spectrometer technology that, until now, has been restricted to a lab.

Mass spectrometers have typically been huge boxes that weigh over 100 pounds each. But, just as computers shrunk from room-sized mainframes to powerful smartphones, Knopp says 908 has been working to create a device that could be used by first responders. The M908 weighs only 4.4 pounds, and uses a technology known as high-pressure mass spectrometry, which can quickly detect the presence of hundreds of toxic chemicals down to the parts per billion.

The company, which has raised over $17 million so far, has been growing internationally, having just signed a series of strategic partnership agreements with distributors in Europe and Australia last month (the company says its devices are now in use in 18 countries). To support the expansion, the company has been expanding its staff to better serve its global customers.

Still, Knopp said he was thrilled to get the contract from the commonwealth. “It’s an order that’s in our backyard, and we’re really excited to be working on it,” he said.

Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.
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