Portable Instruments Continue to Shrink, Get Stronger and Faster
Over the past year, the trends in portable instrumentation that we first explored in July 2010 have continued to progress, with devices getting smaller, faster, and more powerful as demand for portability remains high. However, there have been a few changes at the companies we interviewed last time and some new developments in the industry overall.
Also, as many parts of the world—unfortunately— continue to become more hostile, the defense industry is still one of the major drivers behind the growth of portable instruments because of its need for robust devices that can be taken into dangerous areas to measure for harmful materials. The need for personnel involved in this industry to quickly communicate their data has also had an effect on portable instruments, particularly spectrophotometers.
The definition of portability is still a gray area. Some vendors see truly portable instruments as being handheld, battery-operated devices, while others define them as larger but still compact devices that can be carried around like a suitcase.
And while portable instruments have many benefits, both in the lab and in the field (such as cost and convenience), they are still unable to run complex experiments and are best suited to single functions. Some vendors added that it’s unlikely portable instruments will ever replace the lab, but they will continue to supplement the work done in laboratories, making things easier for everyone.
Changes in spectrophotometers
Since July 2010, there haven’t been massive changes in portable spectrometry. Some vendors have tweaked their existing products, while others have released new ones— all responding to customers’ needs for quicker, smaller, more capable instruments.
Torion, for example, is in the process of releasing its next-generation portable GC/TMS after the Guardion- 7—the Tridion-9, a luggable, 32-pound device.
“The last generation was basically an early-adopter instrument,” said Torion president Doug Later. “We have completely redesigned the instrument from the PC boards up through the GC and MS components to be more robust in a custom-designed case.”
Later added that the system can be used in the field with its own portable helium source, or it can be hooked up to a helium source in the laboratory to provide quick results that users can act on almost immediately. Analyses on the device take only three minutes while there is a fiveminute cycle time between injections, meaning labs can increase their productivity, he said. The Tridion-9 also provides access to more libraries than did the Guardion-7. “We feel it’s a lot more functional and a lot more userfriendly than the Guardion-7 was,” Later said.
Although Later said Torion hopes to reach a broader range of customers with the Tridion-9, he expects 50 percent of the user base to be made up of the defense and security industries and about 15 to 20 percent to be in the environmental sector. However, one recent change he has seen is a growing market in food and beverage testing, along with the chemical and petrochemical industries. He expects portable GC/TMS to continue to follow the same trends as in the past few years—going smaller and faster but with the abilities of a lab instrument.
|Thermo Fisher Scientific has recently given its TruDefender Fti handheld smartphone-like capabilities, allowing users in the hazardous materials and defense industries to e-mail or text critical information to those who need to know it right away.|
On the Raman and FTIR spectroscopy side, handheld instrument vendor Thermo Fisher Scientific has made some additions to their existing products.
Specifically, the company has given its TruDefender FTi handheld FTIR instrument wireless abilities similar to a smartphone, something that’s very useful for the hazardous materials and military customers the instrument serves.
“They can make a measurement, and now, wirelessly, they can send that data out of the hazardous zone to anyone who needs to know it,” said Chris Petty, Thermo’s general manager for portable optical analyzers. “Whether it’s the control vehicle that could be back half a mile away—they can send text messages, full data or emails right from the handheld.”
Petty added handheld XRF, infrared, Raman and nearinfrared instruments are still seeing huge growth due to the high demand—something he expects to continue. He also said handheld instruments will likely keep expanding into a wider range of applications. Up to this point, these technologies have mostly been limited to jewelry, pharmaceutical, military, and mining and exploration applications.
“Now we’re starting to see people taking the systems and starting to measure asbestos in the field—for example, if you want to remediate a building,” Petty said.
With Thermo’s Niton XRF analyzers, the company is currently focused on building upon the products it released in 2010, added Jon Shein, Thermo’s senior marketing and communications director for portable analytical instruments.
|The Ocean Optics STS microspectrometer, for use with OEM devices, is their smallest yet due to its CMOS detector.|
Two big changes have meant greater demand for handhelds, such as Thermo’s Niton XL3t and XL2 XRF analyzers. Since China, which exports 96 percent of the world’s rare earth metals, recently started putting tighter export controls on those metals, there’s been an increased call for production in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and other parts of the world, Shein said. As a result, there’s a greater demand for instruments like the XL3t for rare earth metal analysis.
The XL3t system uses a 50 kilovolt X-ray tube to excite a broad range of elements and determine whether rare earth elements are present and if they’re enriched in “light” or “heavy” rare earth elements. In May of this year, Thermo added a “pseudo element” function to the handheld.
“Customers can input calculations directly on the analyzer,” Shein said. “[And] it’ll help display the mineralogy as opposed to just the elemental concentration that may be found in the host rock.”
Thermo also added stronger data export abilities to the device in June 2011.
The recent rise in gold prices earlier this summer, on the other hand, created a jump in interest from the goldbuying market for the Niton XL2 analyzers, Shein added.
Also keeping up with the continued trend of smaller instruments, Ocean Optics released its STS microspectrometer for original equipment manufacturer (OEM) use earlier this year. At roughly the size of a cigarette lighter, it’s their smallest yet.
“One of the reasons we were able to make it so small is that it uses a CMOS detector, which is much smaller than CCD arrays [that] are typical in miniature spectrometers,” said Ocean Optics director of marketing Rob Morris, of the low-cost device.
Although CMOS isn’t as sensitive as those CCD arrays, Morris said they’ve been able to do some clever things at the optical bench to mitigate that trade-off.
“There [are] some things you can do with how you collect the signal to offset some of those [downsides] as well,” he said. “This is one of the better-performing CMOS devices I’ve seen.” He added the mini device is geared toward high-volume industries because of its low cost and is best for high-light-level applications, such as laser characterization, LED control, and solid-state lighting analysis. It can also be used for absorbance measurements.
As for trends in mini-spectrometers, Morris said there are now more types of the devices than there were in the past and all of them are becoming more compact and portable, to some degree.
“It used to be the CCD-based spectrometers were the only thing you could see in the miniature format,” Morris said. “Now you’ve got all kinds of spectroscopy technology.”
However, Richard Larsen, Ph.D., spectroscopy product manager at JASCO, added he doesn’t think portable instruments will ever be able to fully replace instruments specifically for the lab because they just don’t have as many capabilities due to their small size.
“A lot of these smaller instruments, you can’t put a lot of the advanced experiments on them—they just don’t have the capability to provide that type of interface,” Larsen said. “Even though there is a move to providing a smaller platform, if you want to get into research, you’ve got to move up to the larger instrument. You really have no choice.”
He added there haven’t been many changes at JASCO in the past year in the area of portable instruments, although they’re currently working on adding more features to what they call their portable FTIR instrument, while making it more compact. However, with the changing definition of portability, Larsen said he almost hesitates to call JASCO’s instrument portable, but added it has its advantages, even though it’s not handheld.
“Ours is more designed to be used almost like an engine for doing spectroscopy. It’s not as big as our standard instruments; it’s a more compact-type model,” he said. “We’ve got the ability to use this for a lot of different types of experiments and put a lot of different types of accessories on it.”
Portable TOC analyzers revisited
GE Power & Water, whose CheckPoint TOC sensor we focused on last year, has released a new portable version of its Sievers 5310C total organic content (TOC) analyzer for the municipal market this year.
“One of the biggest features of our portable is the ability to run with an autosampler and the ability to run online with it,” said GE municipal applications specialist Erin England. “You can do either/or.”
|GE Power & Water released a new portable version of its Sievers 5310C TOC analyzer this year for municipal users.|
She added portable TOC analyzers are following trends similar to spectrophotometers—going smaller and being faster and easier to use—and GE will likely continue that path into the future. However, one of the main reasons for making the 5310C portable was the trend of customers demanding more flexibility and versatility from their instruments.
“We have some of our municipalities [that] use it in the lab, but then a pilot project comes up and they want to run online for a little bit. But then they’ll bring it back to the laboratory,” England said. “Or they may want to check different points in their treatment process or take it out to the distribution center.”
One drawback is that, while the 27-pound instrument can be carried around easily enough, it does need to be plugged into a power source because it doesn’t have its own battery. But England said the 5310C is just as capable as instruments designed specifically for lab use.
“It’s the exact same technology,” she said. “The only difference is it’s packaged into a smaller case.”
Like the other vendors, there haven’t been huge changes at Forston Labs since we discussed its LabNavigator modular field analyzer last year, but the company has continued to build on the handheld.
“What we’ve done within that product is just refocus and repackage the probes and sensors for specific industries,” said Forston VP of sales Jeannine Machone. “For example, we’re looking at hydroponics and packaging together different sensors that have always been available but putting them into different kits based on what kind of need the hydroponic operations have.”
One big change to the instrument, which now has a suite of 31 sensors, has been the addition of a GC sensor option, partly in response to increased need from the ethanol testing, winery and distillery markets.
|Forston Labs has continued to build on its LabNavigator handheld with the addition of a mini GC sensor option this year.|
“Last year, the LabNavigator system kind of became known to the world, and the unique thing about it is that it is so versatile in the types of sensors that it can run,” said Steve Zelenak, Forston president. “To add a gas chromatograph is a pretty significant step forward— you’re looking at a cost, including the handheld interface, of under $5,000 in comparison to anything else out there that can be tens of thousands of dollars.” He adds that portability and cost reduction haven’t benefited just those out in the field.
“You can also think of the guys in an industrial process, such as the fuel blenders,” Zelenak said. “Because portable instrumentation has dropped in cost and is easier to use, they could be taking measurements far more often in the plant, getting their answers in minutes.”
Machone sees portable instruments giving more power to decision makers in the future.
“More and more of them will go out to where the decision is required—out into the hands of the person who needs to make the decision, not the chemists,” she said.