Spectroscopy: The answer to China’s ills is in hand

BOSTON, MA—Most everyone knows that China has been remiss in proper control and inspection of its global products for consumption lately—most alarmingly, of products consumed by pets and children.

BOSTON, MA—Most everyone knows that China has been remiss in proper control and inspection of its global products for consumption lately—most alarmingly, of products consumed by pets and children. At SPIE’s Spectroscopy Technology + Applications Conference in Boston Nov. 3, 2008, the problems with China came up repeatedly, with handheld spectroscopic devices as a big part of the answer.

Lead (Pb) in toys destined for the mouths of young children and melamine derivatives in pet food and milk are among a few of the widely known failures of the Chinese government to ensure the safety and integrity of their products. In 2007, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled more than 20,000 toys made in China—party favors and trinkets handed to children everywhere (such as play “hillbilly” teeth)—due to contamination with excessive amounts of Pb paint. According to news reports, the melamine added to pet food and milk powder to increase its protein content caused kidney-related deaths in more than 8000 pets and the hospitalization of 50,000 infants worldwide.

Raman spectroscopy, a technique that detects the vibrational and rotational motion of molecules, has a large part to play in increasing the safety of Chinese products, according to Andrew Whitley, VP of Raman Spectroscopy at Horiba Jobin-Yvon (Edison, NJ), who spoke at the SPIE Spectroscopy conference. A 2008 global assessment by Strategic Directions International (SDi; Los Angeles) estimated that Raman has 10% of the spectroscopy market, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14.6%. In 2007, global revenue was $164 million, with Raman microscopes making up 56% of that. Portable Raman instrumentation is expected to grow 23% from 2007 to 2012. “Raman has become very important for many reasons, one of which is the fact that it can be used to detect melamine in pet food and milk from China,” said Whitley. Raman instrumentation is now handheld, sensitive, and diverse, with applications extending to measurement of the cellulose content in trees to asses the health of forests, examination of the stress in silicon/semiconductor chips, and identification of fake drugs in the pharmaceutical industry. “Raman imaging has increased in speed in the last ten years,” said Whitley. “An image that used to take two days now takes ten minutes.”

William Yang, president and CEO of BaySpec (Fremont, CA) described the advances in spectroscopy as a result of the telecom bubble. “The last ten years have seen great advances in lasers and detectors. The ‘brute forces’ acquired from the optical telecom boom brought about the miniaturization of laser sources and chips, as well as new holographic gratings,” said Yang, all of which have helped advance ultra-compact, low-power-consumption mini-spectrometers. In October, BaySpec sent a hand-held spectroscopy device to China’s Bureau of Commodity Inspection for the measurement of melamine—hopefully the beginning of many more such instruments put to use by inspectors in China.

Jason Eichenholz, VP of research and technology at Ocean Optics (Dunedin, FL), agrees strongly that many applications of mini-spectrometers can solve China’s ills. At this year’s Beijing Olympics, Ocean Optics and a systems-integration partner used spectroscopic solutions to monitor air quality for the Chinese authorities. Monitoring systems were set up near large factories in and around Beijing to continually measure emissions, and large-scale atmospheric monitoring stations were deployed in various locations around the city for transmitting back to a central control site, said Eichenholz. Tail-pipe-monitoring systems integrated with vehicle license-plate identification capability were deployed at traffic lights and toll booths to provide immediate feedback on individual automobile emissions. “The instruments were left in China and will continue to be used because they’ve learned how to use them,” said Eichenholz.

Richard Crocombe, business development manager at Thermo Fisher Scientific (Waltham, MA) spoke about the miniaturization of spectrometers as a disruptive technology. “The advances that began in the telecom era are now finding numerous new applications, and may eventually cause some of the existing, mature technologies and products to disappear from the market.” This is a scary trend for manufacturers of large, expensive spectroscopy systems, and may be a challenge in the near future.

This SPIE Spectroscopy Conference, held at the Boston Renaissance Hotel, registered 120 and saw approximately 50 attendees. The one-track, one-day event is a brand new conference, say event organizers, designed to continue the presence of SPIE events in the northeastern U.S. Whether the conference will be held again in 2009 is yet to be determined.

—Valerie C. Coffey

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