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He calls himself the PID guy. Other people call him “a real-life superhero.” His invention saves lives.

 

In 1973, Jack Driscoll, president and chairman of PID Analyzers, invented and commercialized the first portable photoionization detector (PID). The hand-held device helped address the “vinyl chloride crisis,” a serious safety concern caused by vinyl chloride, a then-newly-identified carcinogen. And the invention turned photoionization into a major analytical technique. 


Growing up in Massachusetts, Driscoll fell in love with science at a young age. After earning his MA in physical chemistry from Boston University, Driscoll worked on various contract projects at GCA Technology Corp and Walden Research. While working on EPA- and NASA-sponsored projects, he found his true passions: environmental safety and photoioionization-based instrumentation.


Following his passion, Driscoll went to work for Orion Research, a company that manufactured instruments. But after realizing that the only way he could do what he wanted to do was to become his own boss, he quit. Six months later, he, along with one partner, Fred Spaziani, incorporated HNU Systems, the predecessor of PID Analyzers. And later a number of engineers Driscoll met at Orion Research joined him in his business. 


“I could not find the job that I wanted, so I started my own company,” says Driscoll. The job he really wanted? Developing photoionization-based instruments that can detect and analyze volatile organic molecules, many of which are pollutants like vinyl chloride.


To support his business, Driscoll worked as an industrial hygiene consultant during the daytime. But at night, he worked hard to build a prototype PID in his office. Back then, there were many issues associated with the type of instrument that Driscoll wanted to build. But he was determined to solve all of them. Eventually he did.

 

“It is interesting to note that in the 1960s many researchers had tried to develop a photoionization detector for gas chromatography but by the late 1960s all agreed that the technology was not sensitive enough to replace the flame ionization detector (FID) and had no future,” says Driscoll. “HNU introduced the first commercial PID for GC in 1976. And this detector was 50-100 times more sensitive than the FID.”

 

However, finding suitable applications for his PID, in other words, a market for his business, turned out to be as challenging as, if not more than, solving the technical problems. But after a visit to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, Driscoll found a golden opportunity, and he seized it.


During the NIOSH visit in 1974, Driscoll learned that vinyl chloride was recently determined a carcinogen, and that the permissible emission limit of the compound was subsequently dropped from 500 ppm to 1 ppm. But the problem was, none of the available technologies could detect the toxic compound at that low level.

 

“If someone had a portable analyzer that could measure vinyl chloride monomer at 1 ppm, they would have had a gold mine,” today Driscoll still vividly remembers hearing a NIOSH scientist tell him this during the visit. The next day, Driscoll drove to Matheson Tri-Gas' Gloucester facility and bought a cylinder of vinyl chloride. That afternoon, a simple test showed that Driscoll indeed had a gold mine.

 

Driscoll and his partners quickly developed a portable, battery-operated PID that weighted only 10 pounds, which is super light compared with NASA’s photoionization-based mass spectrometer that weighed nearly half a ton. The portable PID almost immediately became a standard tool for detecting and analyzing vinyl chloride. And it turned out the device could detect many other toxic compounds in the environment as well.

 

After further improving their technique, Driscoll and his team started shipping their PIDs worldwide. As a result, HNU became profitable 6 months after they shipped their first PID. That was only 15 months after the formation of HNU, an amazing turnaround time in the startup world. With more than 30,000 units sold worldwide, the light weight portable PID, not surprisingly, became a very successful product for HNU.

 

In the following decades, Driscoll continued developing new methods and products to measure pollutants in the environment. A few years ago, he discovered that his method could also detect Arsenic in food and drinks at a remarkably low ppb levels. Sensing another great opportunity knocking at his door, Driscoll quickly developed a PID analyzer for detecting Arsenic in food, water, and air. For this potentially life-saving discovery, in 2013 he won one of the prestigious R&D 100 Awards, which are considered the “Oscars of Invention.” In 2014, he and his team expanded the analyzer’s usage to measure dozens of other harmful metals in air, water, and food.


Building on HNU’s success, Driscoll, along with his partners, subsequently formed a number of other domestic and global business enterprises. Another star company among these startups is Nova Biomedical, a Waltham, Massachusetts-based company that develops, manufactures, and sells sensitive blood-testing analyzers. With its advanced technology, Nova Biomedical has become the world’s largest privately held in vitro diagnostic company. Today Driscoll continues serving on Nova’s board of directors.


Decades of devotion to photoionization-based instruments has earned Driscoll many recognitions and awards. Over the years, he has obtained more than 35 patents and published more than 75 publications on PID, which is about ten percent of all the publications in the area.


As successful as he is, Driscoll doesn’t seem to be ready to sit back and relax. His goal for the next 5 years? Developing photoionization-based methods and instruments to analyze pollutants like Arsenic (As), lead (Pb), Cadmium (Cd), Mercury (Hg), Beryllium (Be), and more.

 

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Yanni Wang is a principal scientific writer and the owner of International Biomedical Communications, a company dedicated to translating research data into clear messages. Yanni has a PhD in chemistry and writes about biomedical research-related topics for professional audiences and the general public.