PittCon Observations from the Floor

April 30, 2013
The trend to smaller and smaller instruments has become a goal for most companies, and miniature spectrometers had a big presence
I just returned from PittCon in Philadelphia and there were a number of items worth noting. As with most technical meetings, the number of warm bodies attending is lower than in past times (18,000 as per PittCon website; as many as 35,000 in past days of glory.) Making the aisles wider, however, made it look as large as in the past…adding to the walking distance. Nonetheless, I managed to wander about and seek out some interesting gadgets.
The first thing I noticed was that the trend to smaller and smaller instruments has become the goal of most companies. One interesting stop was the booth of P&P Optica (Waterloo, Ontario). The company produces various types of spectrometers for industry, but one application caught my eye: a multi-channel device. It was a multi-fiber (multi-channel) device used, simply enough, to examine a dozen or so products at once or in succession. The speed was quite impressive and, the company claims, can measure up to 200 channels. They use a two-dimensional detector and can either measure a number of samples or perform topology measurements on a surface.
I liked Pie Electronics, as well. Their “Swiss Army Knife” instruments (their term, not mine) are best represented by the Pie-in-a-Box — a portable, non-moving parts, no scanning elements, interferometer technology that measures spectral content via Fourier Transform. It is available with a 400nm wide spectrum within the 400nm to 1000nm range. It uses a CCD line camera, and it can also be configured to operate with other Line Arrays to achieve higher sensitivity, resolution, dynamic range and other performance characteristics. It is suitable for single-mode applications including laser characterization and fiber sensor interrogation. 
The application of multi-channel measurements for clinical packaging was accomplished by ASD Inc. over a decade ago, but the price has dropped enormously. While it was successful (used by Sanofi for one application) and the contract packagers were enthusiastic about the technology, the companies who paid for the trials were not willing to underwrite the expense. Now, a decade-plus later, with the PAT, QbD and QbR Guidances out there, perhaps it is time to revisit 100% testing of clinical samples, if not all products. Since it can now be accomplished for far less, there should be no financial barriers (measuring is far less expensive than failed clinical trials).
Another boost to reverie were the advances JDSU has made. I interviewed the company in my 2011 review of PittCon. I was impressed by the size of the instrument, but, admittedly, work was needed for it to be widely used. Fast-forward to 2013 and we see a real product. Work has been going forward on this palm-sized spectrometer for anti-counterfeiting measures. The study results will be presented this summer in France at the International NIR meeting.
In fact, the entire Williams-Wright award session was about miniature spectrometers. The award winner, John Coates, also mentioned JDSU, covering the theory and software needed. Block Engineering showed the latest in their Quantum Cascade LASER device, as well. Without confusing everyone with theory, suffice it to say the physics allows incredibly small spot sizes for spectral examination as well as many distinct wavelengths. 
Clearly, our future is looking smaller. Of the many advantages inherent in mini-spectrometers, aside from the potential cost savings, will be the loss of “explosion-proof” enclosures, with their size and maintenance requirements. The smaller 5-10 volt units, with no moving parts or contact points do not cause sparks, thus, no explosions. In addition, the size and cost will be able to place the devices in the “disposable” category in the future. And, if the cost is that low, we should be able to have spares available for instant swap-out, in case of breakdowns, with no need to have long production delays.
Of course, the third-party software vendors have upgraded their packages to accommodate process control and design of experiments, brought about by the growing interest in PAT and QbD.  One vendor caught my eye: a group named NIRacle (cute name), based in Pennsylvania, and is devoted to generating NIR equations. Since I have always pointed out that NIR manufacturers are usually too small to engage in long-term assistance, companies like this are welcome.
About the Author

Emil Ciurczak | Contributing Editor