The VUV Story
Meet the pioneers making vacuum ultraviolet (VUV) spectroscopy – which taps into an overlooked region of the electromagnetic spectrum with greater sensitivity than other optical methods – available to the scientific community for the first time
Dale Harrison, Sean Jameson, Peter Boler | | 4 min read
sponsored by VUV Analytics
Innovation doesn’t always originate where you’d expect. We believe that vacuum ultraviolet (VUV) spectroscopy can solve many common gas chromatography separation problems – rivaling (or complementing) the now-ubiquitous mass spectrometry. But that certainly wasn’t in our thoughts when we first started working on the technology. In fact, the five founders of VUV Analytics originally worked together at a previous semiconductor startup focused on developing instruments to determine the thickness and composition of high-κ dielectric films, which play an important role in the further miniaturization of microelectronic components. We realized there was a great deal more we could be doing with these wavelengths, so we started exploring additional applications, including those under investigation at synchrotron radiation facilities.
When we looked at gases for the first time, we were amazed at how rich and interesting their spectra were. This was so exciting that we founded VUV Analytics to look at molecular absorption spectra. In the beginning, we didn’t know anything about gas chromatography (GC) – but we spoke to a few people in the industry, who told us we had to go out and build a detector for GC. After some initial research, it became apparent that GC and VUV spectroscopy were a perfect match for each other. That’s how we got started in analytical chemistry.
VUV absorbance is special because it allows you to look at molecules in a totally new way. All chemical compounds absorb light in the VUV range and have unique gas phase absorption features, which makes VUV applicable to applications in pretty much any market. The electronic transitions that give rise to VUV absorbance exhibit much higher cross-sections than those associated with vibrational transitions at longer wavelengths.
But this created some challenges, too. Moisture and oxygen in the atmosphere also absorb in VUV, which is difficult to deal with from an instrument development point of view. Components that transmit VUV light are scarce; there are really only two materials that can do it. But, if you can overcome these issues, you have a window into a fascinating electromagnetic region that gives incredibly rich structural information about molecules – in essence, a universal detector with a tremendous amount of selectivity.
The new kid on the block
Overcoming those challenges is exactly what VUV Analytics has done. Initially, we released the first high-resolution, broad-range VUV detector (the VGA-100). More recently, we’ve been able to modify the optical configuration of the technology to significantly improve sensitivity, which has culminated in our LUMA detector. (We’ll dig deeper into how VUV technology has progressed in recent years in the next article in the series.)
Typically, when people are developing new technologies, they work in an academic setting for many years before the eventual commercialization, which means they’re on the community’s radar. Starting out in the semiconductor industry and then working on our detector in the private sector meant that we were pretty much unknown to the analytical science community. When we presented our first commercial product at Pittcon, we certainly caused a stir – but some people struggled to get their head around the technology.
Nevertheless, we have made significant headway in the hydrocarbon space – an area we focused on first given our location (Texas, USA). We’re also excited about applications within the pharmaceutical and petrochemical industries; in both cases, we’ve initially targeted impurity analysis. But, because you can see all types of molecules with VUV, it has applications in almost all fields – environment, food, toxicology detection in the forensic space, and many more. Anywhere GC is currently used, VUV can add value.
It’s hard to overstate the potential importance of a technology that captures the only currently (commercially) untapped region of the electromagnetic spectrum. It’s like going to an investor 100 years ago and telling them there’s this thing called a radio wave – and inventing a way to make use of it. We’re excited to be pioneering in this space and working hard to take VUV into the mainstream.