While a spectrophotometer might sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, it is actually a powerful tool that companies across the world use to improve their products and learn more about the world. It can tell us if oil is contaminated or if a fruit is ripe. It can also ensure that consistency and performance remain intact across an entire warehouse of products.
So how does all this happen from a spectrophotometer? And how do we use it? The science behind this tool is powerful and can be used in several different ways. To clear things up, we’ve put together some information on the pros and cons of spectrophotometers and how they contribute to different products and technologies, so let’s dive in.
What Is a Spectrophotometer?
A spectrophotometer is a device that precisely measures electromagnetic energy at specific wavelengths of lights. It uses the characteristics of light and energy to identify colors and determine how much of each color is present in a ray of light.The two main components of a spectrophotometer are a spectrometer and a photometer.
- Spectrometer: The spectrometer uses a lens to send a straight beam of light to a prism, which splits it up into its individual wavelengths. Then, a wavelength selector filters out just the specified wavelengths and sends it toward the photometer.
- Photometer: The photometer is the part of the device that detects the number of photons that are absorbed, sending that measurement to a digital display.
A spectrophotometer essentially quantifies how much a given substance reflects or absorbs light — something that we tend to think of as more qualitative. You may think to describe an opaque product as red or blue, with a matte or glossy sheen. Spectrophotometers take this evaluation a step further and quantify those characteristics into something that can be measured and used in precise applications, including clinical diagnosis, quality control, product design and biochemical research.
Like all tools, this one has its benefits and drawbacks. Here are some of the advantages of a spectrophotometer:
- Displays clear, definitive results: With a definite color measurement, differences in viewing circumstances won’t influence the color you work with. For instance, variations in computer screen settings and lighting can make a color appear different than intended. Even differences in human perception, such as color blindness and eye fatigue, can result in many different color interpretations. With a specific measurement, this issue goes away.
- Quantifies a qualitative characteristic: Since a color sample is precisely defined, you can say goodbye to subjective differences in how people interpret colors. “Maroon” might be an entirely different color to two different people, but they can’t argue with a specific color measurement. This improves communication and makes it easier to discuss your work.
- Creates consistency: For many applications and brands, consistent color is a vital part of success. A car manufacturer needs to make sure every piece of the body of the car is the same color, and brands need to make sure that all of their marketing maintains consistent colors across mediums. In print and on a screen, it must all look the same. Precise measurements can help them achieve that.
- Provides incredibly precise measurements: The human eye is surprisingly good at noticing color differences. With precise measurements, you can confidently keep this issue to a minimum.
- Offers fast operation: Spectrophotometers can gather results in just a few seconds and some models are designed for mass quantities.
- Comes in various configurations: These tools come in different models for different samples and environments and offer portability, infrared detection and scans of irregular samples.
Some of the disadvantages of a spectrophotometer include the following:
- It has a somewhat steep learning curve on operating the instrument and interpreting data. Some training may be necessary to fully understand the data provided, though many tasks are easier than others.
- Not every spectrophotometer can measure all types of samples. You may need a model that’s configured to your needs.
Pricing for spectrophotometers can vary, but you can expect an entry-level product, such as a portable spectrophotometer, to cost less than $9,000, while the high-end options can reach upward of $28,000. Full systems complete with software can exceed $40,000.