The Rise of All-pervasive Spectra
Technological advances are allowing optical sensors and mass spectrometers to permeate every aspect of our lives, every corner of our globe – and beyond. What makes spectroscopy so ubiquitous and where are more recent trends taking us? Here, three scientists offer insight across the analytical spectrum.
Mike Morris, Benjamin W Smith & Jessica Prenni |
A Spectrometer on Every Wrist
In 1992, we launched Ocean Optics to sell what we described as the world’s first miniature spectrometer. It featured a very low-cost linear array detector that was originally manufactured for barcode scanners. We discovered this US$20 charge-coupled device (CCD) array detector significantly outperformed $1000 “scientific” photo-diode array detectors. The reason, we came to understand, is that the quality of microelectronics improves with quantity. High-volume manufacturing can use more expensive coaters and other capital equipment. Higher volumes allow for fine tuning and optimization of the process and implementation of more sophisticated quality control systems. The other breakthroughs we needed came from low-cost, high-performance optical fibers, and ever improving and lower-cost computers. These three components formed the basis for our fiber optic, PC-controlled spectrometer.
The other breakthrough was a combination of marketing and engineering, two realms that have more common ground than you might think – both are experimental, involve solving problems, and treat the cost of a product as a design variable. We found that we could lower the cost of applying our spectrometer to new applications by making the system highly modular. Our goal was to make the creation of a new “product” or application possible without any additional engineering expense. Therefore, the components of a spectrophotometer (light source, sample compartment, spectrometer, readout and interpretation) were made and sold as individual items, coupled together with optical fibers to create systems.
By Benjamin W Smith
The field of analytical mass spectrometry plays an important role in so many areas. In the academic lab it is used to study and advance our understanding of basic questions in biological and physical sciences. Outside of the research laboratory it plays a key role in pharmaceutical development, forensic science, food analysis, and clinical diagnostics. It enables us to test our water to make sure it is clean, screen for explosives at the airport to keep us safe, and diagnose illnesses quickly and accurately.
As scientists we should all serve a goal – to contribute to science and the betterment of our world. However, the specific aim of each spectroscopist is not the same, nor should it be. We need spectroscopists who are focused on the theory of spectroscopy and the continued advancement of our analytical tools. Fundamental research is critical to the forward momentum of science and technology. We have to understand our world before we can make it better. We also need spectroscopists who are focused on the application of these tools and the intersection of analytical science with other disciplines.
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