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Product Focus: FTIR Spectrophotometers

As FTIR instrumentation has become more compact and reliable, it has experienced a type of commoditization. That does not mean that innovation has ceased.

Angelo DePalma, PhD

Angelo DePalma is a freelance writer living in Newton, New Jersey. You can reach him at

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Make Way for the Gadgeteers 

As FTIR instrumentation has become more compact and reliable, it has experienced a type of commoditization. That does not mean that innovation has ceased. Mike Bradley, marketing manager for FTIR at Thermo Fisher Scientific (Madison, WI), notes that FTIR is taking on a new type of user—younger individuals who grew up with handheld electronic gadgets.

These individuals are not as interested as their predecessors in the optics or light source. “They want to sit back, push a button, and get taken to where they want to go,” Bradley observes. “We’ve moved from users who used to understand everything under the hood, to those who don’t care what’s under there.”

This puts upon the instrument the onus of alerting users to the need for routine maintenance and performance checks, not to mention providing sophisticated tools for data analysis. “Users continue to expect increasing responsibility out of instruments. They still want the highest quality data and longest instrument lifetime, but now they also want instruments to be their partners.”

Noting the astounding technical advances in hardware and computing that enabled FTIR to reach this point, Bradley believes that instrument makers can do even more.

“Apple didn’t come up with their innovative products in response to customer needs; they produced products that people didn’t even know they wanted. If you’d asked people in 2001 what kind of music player they wanted they would point to a big clunky CD player, not something the size of a quarter. It is incumbent on instrument manufacturers, if they want to be at the cutting edge, to anticipate needs, to understand how customers use and interact with instruments—how they can get users not from point A to point B, but from point A to point Z.”

Different strokes 

One way to do this is to anticipate actual needs instead of stressing research-grade spectra as the only way. Bradley mentions field workers who need to collect a high quality FTIR spectrum. “But what does high quality mean? It should mean answering their questions, not generating a perfect spectrum,” Bradley explains. “What works for a first responder in a hazardous environment will probably not work for a scientist.”

“Situational spectroscopy” illustrates another trend, notes Mark Talbott, PhD, molecular spectroscopy product manager at Shimadzu Scientific Instruments (Columbia, MD). “Over the last two years there’s been a huge push to get FTIR instrumentation smaller and more mobile. I don’t know where this is heading or how durable and robust these instruments are. Obtaining reliable spectra requires that the mirror be stable. But for quick identification, or field operation, small units definitely have an appeal.”

Commoditization has had a profound impact on FTIR availability. Until relatively recently, universities and industrial R&D centers treated FTIR as they might NMR—expensive walk-up instruments for which users would sign up for time. “A department might have one or two FTIRs,” Talbott says. “Now, thanks to instruments shrinking in size, they’re buying multiple units.”

Research-grade instruments are improving as well. A recent Shimadzu product introduction provides sensitivity of 60,000:1 and acquires 20 full-spectrum scans per second—suitable for kinetics. An ideal application would be monitoring polymer cure. Another feature is the ability to subtract out huge solvent peaks, which is useful when working with aqueous systems.

And as usual, ease of use rules. “System features can be locked down, so anyone who pushes the button can get a quality spectrum,” Talbott says.

For additional resources on FTIR Spectrophotometers, including useful articles and a list of manufacturers, visit