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Milestone Spectroscopy Whatever the Wavelength: The Wide World of Spectroscopy

Author / Editor: Dr. Ilka Ottleben, Marc Platthaus / Dr. Ilka Ottleben

Ultimately, every analysis relies on detection, and in most cases one of the many spectroscopic procedures is used for this. What is happening in this extremely wide-ranging field, and what trends are hot right now?

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Fig. 1: FTIR spectrometers can be used in goods entry checks, for example.
Fig. 1: FTIR spectrometers can be used in goods entry checks, for example.
(Bild: Thermo Fisher Scientific)

There is barely a chemistry student or apprentice who has not come into contact with spectroscopy right in the earliest days of his or her teaching and training. When sodium causes a Bunsen burner flame to burn yellow, this shows the conversion of thermal energy into radiation energy. Similar energy changes also occur in any spectrometer, whether in the radio wave range (NMR spectroscopy) or in the x-ray range (x-ray spectroscopy). Major methods which have become established in the laboratory over the past decades include UV-Vis spectroscopy, IR spectroscopy, Atomic absorption and Atomic emission spectrometry, Raman spectroscopy and Mass spectrometry. Mass spectrometry in particular is developing into the detection method of choice in many areas, such as pharma analysis or environmental analysis.

Current research into alternative energy generation and storage methods is one example of the importance of spectroscopy, says Simon Nunn, Manager Business Development, Vibrational Spectroscopy at Thermo Fisher. “The solution to global warming and the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources call for new materials, new means of transport and new production processes. All this is driving demand for spectroscopy; from discovering materials through to production.” For example, new materials can be examined using Raman imaging systems like the DXR 2xi, or raw materials for renewable fuels can undergo goods entry checks using FTIR spectrometers like the Nicolet iS 50. Generally, as Nunn sees it, spectroscopy has developed with two orientations, “Research” and “Routine”: “Research instruments develop in harmony with the needs of the scientists and of the materials they are investigating. In Materials Science, the need to understand smaller, more complicated structures will lead to increased linking of spectroscopy with microscopy.


In the bio-sciences, the need to diagnose and understand diseases in early stages will drive development of fast imaging systems, spectroscopic medical devices and improved chemometrics. Conversely, routine instruments are getting smaller, more robust and less expensive.” Additionally, a further trend is observable today, towards mobile analytics. Portable spectrometers like the Tru-Defender FTIR handheld spectrometer were developed to analyze unknown chemicals directly on the spot — in the military, disaster protection, fire brigades, industry and environmental protection.

Taking mass spectrometry as the example, a number of developments are presented below to serve by way of illustration for other areas of spectroscopy.

The lengthy path to the first commercial systems

“There simply has to be an easier way of getting this outcome,” was the one-time lament of a developer at US mass spectrometry pioneer Consolidated Engineering Corporation, CEC. Based on the work of Thomson, Aston, Bainbridge, Dempster, Nier and others, who can properly be described as the “founding fathers” of mass spectrometry, companies established in the USA and the UK such as CEC and MetroVick developed the technology to market-readiness during the 1940s. Putting it delicately, though, at that time mass spectrometers had a reputation for requiring very careful and skilled handling. Back then, a mass spectrometer filled a whole room rather than a lab bench, and was still the “machine that almost doesn’t quite work.” This utterance by an early user in the USA was a familiar phrase in the sector for a long time.

So a fair degree of optimism was needed, even in an engineering hub like Germany, to want to build mass spectrometers for commercial use. The young physicist Dr. Ludolf Jenckel had precisely this idea. This native of Bremen, employed at the Atlas-Werke there, took the idea to his line manager in 1947 — and was turned down. Too exotic, too uncertain, too great a technology deficit compared to the USA and UK, and a project simply too far removed from the company’s core business. But he insisted, and finally got permission to work on his vision — for half-days, and at his own risk. And it is really thanks to Jenckel’s stubbornness that Bremen is today one of the leading centers for mass spectrometry in Europe. A year later, a small division was set up — Atlas MAT (Mess- und Analysen-Technik) — and the first prototype unveiled, the 60° sector field MS I. In 1967 MAT was taken over by Varian Associates (Palo Alto, USA), whose worldwide marketing activities promoted it to become a leading manufacturer of mass spectrometers. In 1981, that company was taken over by the then leading GC/MS manufacturer Finnigan (San Jose, USA).

In turn, Finnigan was taken over in 1990 by Thermo Electron Corp., which later became Thermo Fisher Scientific in 2006. The broadening of the product portfolio continued. MALDI technology, which was new at that time, was a minimal-fragmentation ionizing technique that opened up new horizons for biochemical applications, allowing analysis of compounds with very high molecular weights (up to 1 million Daltons) for the first time. It meant that the majority of chemical compounds were now accessible via mass spectrometric procedures.

Especially aimed at biochemical research, in 1991 the company introduced Vision 2000, a Time-of-Flight (TOF) system, to the market.

Another emerging technology, especially for trace analysis of elements, was ICP-MS. Element, the high-resolution mass spectrometer launched in 1993, saw the company now servicing this market too.