Miniaturization Drives Spectroscopy
Dr. Tina Bacon
The decade-long trend toward miniaturization will continue to define the short-term
future of spectroscopic instrumentation, and increasing opportunities in defense
and biomedicine will advance product development.
In the spectroscopy
industry, “downsizing” in 2001 described more the miniaturization of
instrumentation than the reduction of work forces. Indeed, since the release of
the first commercial miniature spectrometer in the early 1990s — the fortuitous
consequence of the availability of low-cost CCD detectors and optical fiber, plus
old-fashioned innovation — dozens of similar spectrometers have entered the
The miniaturization of spectrometers and of other instrumentation
has made rapid, real-time analysis in the field both accessible and affordable.
Images courtesy of Ocean Optics Inc.
This is good news for the researcher whose budget
has been slashed in the wake of a sluggish economy. Competition in the market for
miniature UV-VIS-NIR spectrometers has spurred the research and development of even
smaller and more versatile instruments, and it has kept prices to a level that is
reasonable for most R&D budgets.
Moreover, the success of the miniaturized
UV-VIS-NIR instrumentation has inspired innovation in other spectroscopy techniques:
Portable mass spectrometers as well as handheld chemical sensors that utilize miniaturized
chromatographs and photodiode technology are now on the market.
The food and beverage
and other commercial industries may benefit from the marriage of miniature spectroscopic
instruments and optical chemical sensors for defense applications.
As the need for spectroscopic and optical-sensing
instrumentation continues to grow, two virtually recession-proof sectors —
defense and biomedicine — will help to dictate the direction of innovation
in 2002. Research has long been a significant part of our national defense effort,
especially in times of war. Many trace the origins of modern spectroscopy to World
War II and the introduction of Arnold O. Beckman’s DU spectrophotometer,
a device that, according to Beckman Instruments Inc., “analyzed chemical substances
by the use of light and made results that previously took weeks to obtain possible
Imagine the consequences for a nation at war.
Instruments for defense
Today the defense industry offers more opportunities
for product innovation than ever. Not only is the sector demanding better products
—after all, in some ways the stakes are even higher than they were 60 years
ago — but its experts also are asking manufacturers for the same things that
customers desire: remote sensing capability, instrument portability and speed, rapid
development time and affordable pricing.
Among the most pressing defense needs
are advances in chemical and biological warfare agent detectors. Several technologies
show potential for the latter. Portable mass spectrometers and UV-VIS spectrometers
with reagent kits for spore detection could be used for the immediate in situ detection
of contaminants such as anthrax. Lab-on-a-chip detectors, which combine wet chemistries
with fluorescence spectrometers or colorimeters in a package the size of a business
card, also are promising solutions.
Spectroscopic instrumentation promises to satisfy the demand for
faster, portable systems that can detect chemical or biological contaminants.
It is likely that one or more of the
numerous companies racing to release spectroscopic chemical and biological warfare
agent detectors will have succeeded by the time that this piece appears in print.
The technology needed for consumer-level instrumentation, such as for the food and
beverage industry, is still a few years away, however.
Instruments for biomedicine
The biomedical industry encompasses both medical
research and clinical practice, and it continues to offer many incentives for spectrometer
development. Consider the value of high-speed spectroscopy. A number of fundamental
chemical and biological processes occur on picosecond time scales, which can be
probed using picosecond time-resolved resonance Raman spectroscopy, UV spectroscopy
or optical chemical sensors (for measuring oxygen and carbon dioxide, for example).
Moreover, as optical-sensing systems continue to get smaller, researchers will be
able to measure chemical and biological changes even in the smallest organisms.
For medical practitioners, the driving
forces for development are expense, portability and ease of use. In vitro measurement
is no longer the only option available. For example, one of the more exciting recent
medical innovations is an in vivo heart monitor that can provide continuous physiological
data to doctors via the Internet. Also planned is an in vivo spectrometer that measures
blood oxygenation levels and blood cell counts.
Because it can be applied relatively
inexpensively and with great flexibility, spectroscopy is inherently suited to biomedical
applications. The noninvasive application of spectroscopy is the goal (consider
a near-IR device that could measure and monitor glucose levels through the skin),
but it appears that we are years away from this type of diagnostic capability. Nevertheless,
in vivo optical probes and sensors that can be inserted into a vein may soon be
clinically accepted solutions to some diagnostic challenges.
Meet the author
Tina Bacon is a senior sensor scientist at Ocean
Optics Inc. in Dunedin, Fla. She holds a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate
in chemical engineering from the University of South Florida in Tampa, where she
researched optical scattering technology. Prior to joining Ocean Optics, she developed
instrumentation for Constellation Technology Corp. of Largo, Fla., a company that
manufactures portable instruments for chemical and radiation detection.
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