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ICP sales steady as economy seeks foothold.

Manufacturers of inductively coupled plasma (ICP) spectrometers can weather economic slumps bearing in mind a simple but essential fact: so long as laboratories test samples for specific elements, there will always be a need for elemental analyzers. While on the surface this may seem a truism, the reliance of many industrial labs on atomic emission spectroscopy has helped keep the instrument sector stable or growing, even during particularly difficult economic periods.

This is no small achievement, especially considering the breadth of financial woes that have recently afflicted many industries, including the petroleum and environmental markets, two of the largest ICP customers. According to statistics collected by the American Petroleum Institute, a leading industry trade association, both refinery processing and demand for a number of petroleum products fell in 2001 and 2002, and in a report published by the group earlier this month, petroleum production and demand continued to decline entering December.

Despite underwhelming market trends, ICP manufacturers have some reason to be hopeful about coming years. New product introductions and weakening sales among some other atomic spectroscopy instruments could provide vendors with opportunities to strengthen their product lines and compete for new customers, especially in areas that, as the economy begins to right itself, are bound to see improvement.

Sometimes referred to as ICPAES (atomic emission spectroscopy) or ICP-OES (optical emission spectroscopy), ICP spectroscopy works by measuring the photon wavelengths produced by excited electrons to identify the signatures of specific elements. Like inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (ICP-MS), ICP uses a nebulizer to combine a liquid sample with argon gas, creating a fine aerosol. This mixture is sent into a plasma torch, which ionizes the sample and sends a discharge of plasma through the machine. However, while ICP-MS systems position their torches axially (horizontally) to produce positive ions, the majority of ICP-OES instruments use a vertical, or radial, torch configuration to create photons.

Even when outfitted with an axial torch, which produces 5 to 10 times lower detection limits than traditional radial ICP, ICP-OES still lacks the precision of ICP-MS. Atomic absorption (AA) spectroscopy--the other major elemental analysis technique--rivals the results of ICP-MS in its graphite furnace variation, but flame AA, the most popular and economical AA technique, tends to perform comparably with ICP-OES.

With so much overlap among trace element spectrophotometers, no one technique serves as an analytical catchall. Purchasing decisions, then, rely not just on the price and performance of specific instruments relative to their peers, but also relative to certain applications. For example, AA--the most inexpensive and easiest trace analyzer to operate--can quickly test for one or two elements in a large sample batch. However, when analyzing dozens of elements over a wide range of concentrations, ICP, with its excellent multielement testing abilities, may prove a better choice. In situations where the ability to reach the lowest detection levels trumps price considerations--in the semiconductor industry, for instance--the sensitivity of ICP-MS proves a popular choice, even though the instruments can cost more than 10 times as much as an AA analyzer.

One reason ICP has been able to maintain its foothold in trace analysis testing, despite the poor showings of its largest markets, is because of its adaptability to a broad variety of applications. Environmental labs commonly use ICP to measure trace amounts of arsenic and metals in water; and food and agricultural researchers use it to test elements such as iodine in food samples, and metals and chemicals in soils and fertilizers. In determining engine wear and operating efficiency, some laboratories employ the technique to look for metal fragments in oils. In clinical settings, ICP is used to analyze blood, serum, urine and tissues, and in the pharmaceutical industry, companies are increasingly seeing the benefits of ICP in efforts to control formulations.

The large number of labs running tests with ICP allows manufacturers to take advantage of shifting needs caused by regulatory changes. On January 22, 2001, for example, in a rule that has since been the target of court challenges, the EPA revised its arsenic standards for drinking water from 50 ppb to 10 ppb. If the EPA regulation goes into effect as planned, systems will be required to comply with the new standard by January 23, 2006. The arsenic rule, along with other tighter restrictions on trace metals in drinking water, may lead laboratories to switch from AA to ICP systems, upgrade their current ICP analyzers or even move up to ICP-MS.

As a result, shifts in application trends and customer needs can drive instrument trends as much or more than technological breakthroughs. Last summer, Jobin Yvon announced the ULTIMA 2000, the newest model in its UI,TIMA line of 1CP-OES analyzers (see IBO 10/31/03). Billed as a "modestly priced" alternative to similar 1CP spectrometers, the ULTIMA 2000 offers features that are intended, according to Jobin Yvon, to "meet many of today's challenging global environmental methods." Thermo Electron, which introduced its IRIS Intrepid II Series ICP-OES last spring, sells its instrument in configurations optimized for a variety of tests, ranging from "drinking water to sludge and ores to organics."

This is not to say that technology improvements do not also figure into ICP design. The integration of solid-state detectors into simultaneous ICP systems in place of traditional photomultiplier tubes (PMTs) has shortened the time needed for analyzing a sample and, especially in laboratories like contract-research labs, which in large part measure profits by the number of tests they can conduct, made tests more cost efficient. While PMT simultaneous ICP is useful for testing specific, known elements, the instruments are expected to suffer an annual decline of nearly 5% in product demand over the next three years. Demand for solid-state systems, on the other hand, is forecast to increase nearly 6% over the same period.

This trend is represented, too, in recent ICP introductions. In October 2002, PerkinElmer introduced its Optima 4300V, a single-view version of its 4300 DV model built for oil, metallurgical and geological laboratories. According to PerkinElmer tests, the Optima 4300V can identify up to 72 elements in less than a minute. Spectro Analytical's Ciros ICP uses a proprietary optical system (CIRcular Optical System) that reduces some of the weaknesses and restrictions of traditional solid-state detectors. And at Pittcon 2002, Leeman Labs unveiled its Prodigy High Dispersion ICP, which has more than four times the active area of commercial detectors, allowing for greater wavelength access and performance.

In 2002, solid-state ICP revenue outpaced the PMT-based ICP market by more than three times, a trend that looks to continue in 2004 and 2005. Stabilization in the petrochemical sector paired with continuing refinements to environmental regulations should continue to boost ICP in coming years. Regardless of whether the popularity of solid state will drive PMT-based ICP to extinction, ICP seems poised for a strong future.
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Title Annotation:inductively coupled plasma spectrometers
Publication:Instrument Business Outlook
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 31, 2003
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