Spectroscopy Simplified

The year 2008 will be a major and dynamic one for molecular spectroscopy. A completely new range of analytical problems will be solved by a new generation of analysts. Powerful techniques widely available but out of the reach of many people and organizations who really need them will become accessible and broadly applied to a range of problems. The reason is simplifying spectroscopy without sacrificing performance, geared largely to the 21st century analytical laboratory.

FTIR and Raman spectroscopy are proven techniques for a wide range of applications and industries—polymers, pharmaceuticals, forensics, and academia, to name a few. Recently, their use has proven successful in areas such as biofuels, geology, art restoration, and archeology. Materials can be identified, confirmed, verified, and quantified. However, the majority of those who use or can benefit from molecular spectroscopy face increasing pressure to focus on the bigger challenges rather than the techniques and tools used to solve them. The goal is not materials characterization, but the action that derives from it. For the new generation of analytical laboratories, instrument platforms should make spectroscopy transparent while analysts focus on solving the end problem.

Emergence of new types of users

Within the last 10 years, the majority of FTIR and Raman spectroscopy users have shifted from being specialists in spectroscopy to being specialists in their products and processes. What this has meant for analytical instrumentation in general is a shift toward its use as a tool for getting to an answer. A growing number of users do not have the time or luxury to become experts in the use of a single analytical technique. For powerful techniques such as Raman spectroscopy and FTIR microscopy, this has meant isolation from many problems they could solve because they have largely remained complex techniques. For those who are experts, there are many suitable R&D Raman and FTIR spectrometers and microscopes available, but for nonexperts, solving problems more efficiently means simplifying spectroscopy in order to carry on with the rest of their work.

Raman and FTIR are well understood in terms of the samples that can be analyzed and the answers they can produce. Both techniques provide chemical fingerprints of large and small materials, and both are complementary with the spectral information they provide and in their ability to tackle various sample types in different situations. As samples become smaller, more similar, or otherwise harder to understand, higher-performance systems or greater expertise (or both) become necessary. Until now, those needing molecular spectroscopy were offered a choice of technology families: high-powered systems that can handle challenging analytical problems but that carry operational overhead (people, service, or both), or simple systems that are suitable for a single task but have significant limitations in spectroscopic performance and flexibility.

Much attention has been paid to research sectors and to “out-in-the-field” spectroscopy, but not enough to the practical analytical laboratory sector tasked with troubleshooting, characterizing, identifying, and verifying challenging and widely varied samples. Helping today’s analytical services laboratory has meant making a significant investment in connecting the two, for example, by:

  • Creating spectrometer systems that dramatically reduce or completely eliminate the learning curve on running the instrument
  • Eliminating the challenges of obtaining good data
  • Simplifying any regular service or configurability of a system
  • Facilitating or automating the user’s translation of sample to answer.

In essence, Thermo Fisher Scientific (Madison, WI) aimed to create a spectroscopy tool that does not require compromised performance, technology, or intelligence, but rather, is designed to enable easier completion of a task. For many analytical laboratories today, the task is not to acquire a spectrum, and it certainly is not to run a spectrometer. It is to quickly and confidently obtain answers in support of some larger process.

A complete family of FTIR and Raman spectrometer and microscope systems is designed from the ground up for this new generation of analytical problem-solving. The systems place emphasis on getting from a sample to a real answer as quickly as possible, with little to no heavy lifting needed from an operator, to address an extremely broad range of analytical problems. The products complement the Thermo Scientific research counterparts: Almega™ XR Raman, Nicolet™ 6700 FTIR, and Nicolet Continuum™ FTIR microscope.

This article describes the meaningful advances to Raman spectroscopy, Raman microscopy, FTIR spectroscopy, and FTIR microscopy that are introduced in these products, as well as the implications to the world of spectroscopy.

Changing Raman from expert analysis to real-world problem-solving

The 80th anniversary of the Raman technique was marked in 2008. Since its discovery, Raman has evolved into an extremely powerful technique and is growing in popularity. However, its application within analytical services has been hindered by the technical issues that require specialist expertise to avoid or solve. Many are familiar with the sensitivity to alignment and focus in Raman spectrometer systems. Spectral challenges such as fluorescence and instrument response artifacts can create doubt in data quality to all but experts in the technique. The optical configurability that can be used to avoid problems from difficult samples has never been feasible for the high-volume laboratory because of the service historically needed to adapt a Raman system to different spectral range performance. Raman can solve problems intractable by other spectroscopy techniques, making these obstacles to broader accessibility very unfortunate. The good news is that they have been confronted methodically to boost Raman’s popularity and utility significantly.

The Thermo Scientific DXR SmartRaman™ spectrometer and DXR Raman microscope retain the performance of high-end Raman spectrometers but methodically displace traditional Raman challenges by design. The end result is systems that do not require expertise to operate or even maintain. More importantly, they open the door for the laboratory problem-solver or generalist to benefit from Raman spectroscopy without the expertise or maintenance overhead. The systems feature interchangeable self-aligning parts and a new plateau in reliability for the technique. More significantly, they take care of the spectroscopic subtleties and peculiarities of the Raman techniques so that users can focus confidently on the answer and need not worry about backgrounds, focusing, spectral suitability, or system performance.

FTIR spectroscopy and the delicate balance of accuracy and performance

FTIR is a ubiquitous laboratory technique due in large part to the ease with which data can be obtained from an incredibly broad range of samples. However, the results of FTIR are often called into question due to uncertainty as to whether the instrument is performing consistently, and difficulties in interpreting the spectra that such instruments produce. In the past, assuring the quality of data and the accuracy of interpretation has required significant expertise. To date, the value of FTIR to an organization has been limited by the expertise of its users.

The Thermo Scientific Nicolet iS™10 spectrometer, software, and accessories are designed and built with performance verification as a core metric. All Nicolet iS10 spectrometers are supplied with traceable standards mounted on an internal validation wheel; thus any laboratory requiring system performance verification can integrate suitability tests into laboratory procedures without additional purchases.

The challenges of processing, organizing, searching, and interpreting IR spectra prompted the development of Thermo Scientific OMNIC™ Specta™—software designed around two core considerations: improvement of work flows in analysis, and the production of consistent, reliable results. Traditional processing tools are available in a new interface that provides immediate and interactive control over the results. The tools provide automated ways to extract information from spectra, providing consistency and confidence in results.

FTIR microscopy and imaging for the problems-focused user

Increased interest in the identification of small particles and the structural characterization of heterogeneous systems has driven significant growth in FTIR microscopy. Development efforts over the past 15 years have focused on improved spatial resolution (and spectral purity), chemical mapping and the faster chemical imaging of larger areas, as well as statistical visualization tools to assist with the interpretation and meaning of the data. All of these have resulted in a generation of FTIR microscope products capable, in the right hands, of solving very demanding problems. Certain obstacles to the common user have remained because the emphasis in product development in the industry has been on users of microscopes and FTIR spectrometers, rather than those who can benefit from the use of microspectroscopic problem-solving. Energy throughput has been a problem because of the requirement for an attached FTIR spectrometer to power the system. Working with extremely small samples, finding them, and optimizing a microscope/spectrometer combination to collect data from them has never been easy.

The Thermo Scientific Nicolet iN™10 FTIR microscope solves all of these problems and more. An integrated design eliminates the need for a spectrometer, saving on space, improving throughput and sensitivity, and eliminating the user’s need for a compatible FTIR spectrometer to sit alongside it. Using machine vision “smarts,” the system can identify samples for the user and readily handles all of the microscopy and spectroscopy setup including aperturing, focusing, and background handling. The microscope also includes software intelligence built around solving the most commonly encountered microsample problems, from defects to layer analysis to reverse engineering. Each of these problems typically has a specific set of tasks and steps that must be performed with sample handling, data collection, and data analysis; until now all have required time, expertise, and even risk of error or misinterpretation. The Nicolet iN10 system packages all of the work into a self-running system, and the operator is effortlessly accelerated toward an answer.

Molecular spectroscopy for the laboratory

The significance of the products described is not the products themselves. As the analytical services laboratory becomes filled with problem-solvers under great pressure, the analytical instrument industry is due to take a hard look at how we can improve those steps in the work for which they rely on spectroscopy. A new way to think about spectroscopy is to put simplified spectroscopy to work for the laboratory, without having to worry about the spectroscopy at all.

Mr. Ellis is New Products Marketing Director, Molecular Spectroscopy and Microanalysis, Thermo Fisher Scientific, 5225 Verona Rd., Bldg. 4, Madison, WI 53711, U.S.A.; tel.: 608-276-6345; fax: 608-273-5046; e-mail: scot.ellis@thermofisher.com.