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Miniaturization Drives Spectroscopy

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2002
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 market.

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 in minutes.”

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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