Their simplicity is deceiving – translucent discs about the size and thickness of two toonies stacked together.

But what they reveal about gases, liquids and solids has made their Waterloo manufacturer a head-turning company.

P & P Optica is in the spectrometry business, developing better devices for reading the light signatures that compounds and elements give off. The heart of P & P’s success lies inside those discs: A thin layer of gelatin, etched by lasers into a “grating” that slices up light into a range of wavelengths.

“About 60 per cent more light goes through our grating than through a traditional system,” says Olga Pawluczyk, the company’s chief executive officer. “Your signal becomes much stronger. You can now detect things you couldn’t detect before.”

P & P recently signed on as a partner in Communitech’s DATA.BASE project. A collaboration of government, business and post-secondary institutions, DATA.BASE seeks to tap into “big data” collected by remote sensing devices, such as the cameras and receivers installed on satellites. The aim is to see whether that information – or the analysis of it – can be turned into products for sale.

In August, P &P’s discs flew in an airplane over oil fields in Alberta. Fitted into spectrometers, the discs sampled the light for the wavelengths given off by methane and other gases.

It is part of a project run by York University, another DATA.BASE partner. Out of the arrangement, P & P Optica learns more about its product; York gets richer information from a high-performance device.

Gelatin gratings shake up conventional technology in spectroscopy by making devices smaller and faster, while delivering high-resolution, low-distortion results.

Current and potential uses include scanning brain tissue for cancerous cells, sensing hidden explosives from a safe distance and picking out different kinds of clear plastic from a moving stream of recyclable waste.

As the technology becomes smaller and more powerful, portable, gelatin-based spectrometers might become valuable tools for enforcement agencies, Pawluczyk says.

“What if every Coast Guard boat had a spectrometer on board? That’s where it’s leading.”

Established in Quebec in 1995, P & P Optica is a family-owned company, run by Pawluczyk and her father Romuald Pawluczyk, who serves as chief scientist.

Only four labs in the world make gelatin gratings. P & P has its own process.

The company moved to Kitchener in 2000. In 2011, it relocated to a small industrial plaza on Davenport Road in Waterloo. Here, P & P’s 12 employees carry out research and make the discs.

“Why wouldn’t we be in Waterloo?” Olga Pawluczyk says. “It’s a really neat town, and we have access to all kinds of really talented people. It’s also close to the airport and Toronto.

“Communitech’s advocacy helps, too. It’s really good that we get to participate in Communitech.”