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Surprisingly valuable: the hollow cathode lamp market.

Hollow cathode lamps (HCLs) occupy a unique place in the analytical instrument aftermarket. Not only are they a relatively high-priced consumable, but competition remains healthy despite the maturity of the atomic absorption spectrometer (AA) market as a whole. The aftermarket is especially important for AA and other techniques where the large installed base ensures a steady stream of purchases. Although a lab may delay the purchase of a new AA due to budget constraints, it cannot delay the purchase of new HCLs for its current AA.

HCLs are glow-discharge lamps used almost exclusively in atomic absorption spectrometers to generate narrow emission lines. Made of quartz, pyrex or borosilicate, HCLs are filled with neon or argon at low pressure. The cathode is made of the element(s) that is to be measured. Upon activation, the electrical potential ionizes the gas atoms, hit the cathode's atoms and radiate light at the element's wavelength. As the atoms return to their ground state, the element's characteristic wavelength is emitted. This light is absorbed by the element in the sample. The radiation from the exchange is then measured and analyzed, generating spectral lines for quantitative analysis. HCLs are valued for high sensitivity, stable light output, low noise and long life.

As with many consumables for traditional analytical instruments, HCLs are sold by instrument companies, distributors and specialized vendors. In the case of AA, almost all major AA manufacturers also sell HCLs. Thus, the HCL market is crowded with competitors ranging form large, broad-line instrument companies such as PerkinElmer, Varian, and Thermo Elemental to smaller instrument vendors such as Aurora Instruments and Buck Scientific. Specialized vendors include Photron Pty. Ltd., Imaging & Sensing Technology Corporation, Hamamatsu, and Cathodeon.

Differentiation and instrumentation play key roles in lamp choice among end-users. Although cost is one competitive factor, performance and flexibility are also important marketing points. AA is used in a variety of laboratories, ranging from environmental and clinical reference labs to labs in the semiconductor and food industries, for numerous applications, including analyses of trace analysis of environmental samples and the analysis of chromium in food. The diversity of end-users and applications, and the range of AA systems, creates demand for a wide choice of HCLs. These factors, as well as the price of HCLs, which cost on average from $300-$500 each, has created an attractive but competitive market.

HCLs are available in single or multi-element (up to six element) versions. Single element HCLs tend to provide better detection limits and intensity, and lower baseline noise levels. Single-element lamps are lower priced, depending on the element. Due to cost, performance and applications, among other factors, single-element lamps hold a larger market share. Instrument companies distinguish their single-element HCLs by performance as a company's AA is designed for and tested using that company's HCL. In addition, instrument companies offer warranties and service for their AAs and HCLs.

In the case of PerkinElmer, which holds the number 1 position in the AA market, its HCLs, sold under the brand name Lumina, are larger, with a 2 inch diameter compared to the standard 1.5 inch diameter. According to Glen R. Carnrick, senior scientist in PerkinElmer Instruments' Inorganic Business Unit, the larger dimensions means greater gas volume and thus longer lamp lifetime. Another distinction of the product is milliampere-hour timer at the base of each Lumina HCL, which tracks the lamps expected lifetime. PerkinElmer HCLs can also be used on other manufacturers' AAs with an adapter.

However, for multi-element analyses, the constant changing of single-element HCLs makes the multi-element HCLs more attractive in terms of convenience and throughput. A number of companies have promoted their multi-element HCLs in order to gain a competitive edge. According to Doug Schrader, an atomic absorption product line manager at Varian, the detection limits, sensitivity and life times of multi-element HCLs have greatly improved over the years, resulting in the increased usage of multi-element HCLs.

The latest update on multi-element HCLs is Photron's six cathode multi-element HCLs, which feature a cathode for each element. According to Photron, this lamp offers compatibility among a combination of elements that other multi-elements lamps cannot accommodate, and performance closer to single-element HCLs. Also, dual elemental cathodes can allow for the detection of up to 12 elements.


High intensity HCLs make-up yet another segment of the HCL market. High intensity HCLs provide greater emission intensity, and thus higher sensitivity, through the use of a second discharge to excite more atoms. Such lamps are used for applications requiring lower detection limits, such as the detection of arsenic in environmental samples using furnace AA, or semiconductor analyses. In addition, such lamps are useful for the analysis of elements with complex spectra, such as nickel and iron. A number of vendors offer their own brands. Varian's UltrAA lamps claim a 40% increase in sensitivity. They compete with PerkinElmer's electrodeless discharge lamp, Photron Pty.'s Super lamps and Aurora Instruments' high intensity HCL, among others.

The latest AA products also seek to provide the flexibility and options that multi-elements HCLs do. Thermo Elemental's new SOLAAR S Series AA is a value priced compact AA featuring 6 lamps, demonstrating the increasing sophistication of lower cost AAs and the demand for multi-element analysis. Interestingly, several new AA systems, including Thermo's S series and Shimadzu's AA-6650, are lower priced, yet HCLs remain among the most expensive consumables for traditional analytical instruments. Increased lamp life and performance have no doubt explained this pricing, and with the variety of vendors, lower priced lamps can be found.

Although not as flashy as other aftermarket products, HCLs provide important ongoing income for major AA manufacturers. They have also been important to companies that manufacture their own HCLs, such as PerkinElmer and Varian, whose reputation for quality and performance have been enhanced by their HCLs. Thus, while initial systems may drive this market and its technical developments, HCLs are a valuable aftermarket business.
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Comment:Surprisingly valuable: the hollow cathode lamp market.
Publication:Instrument Business Outlook
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 15, 2001
Previous Article:IBO instrument sales index: margins decline on tepid growth.
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