Varsity device a world first

Zandile Mbabela

THE Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University has upped its competitive edge in scientific research with the acquisition of a R5.3-million spectrometer – a first of its kind in the world – that will speed up the university’s material analysis.

The Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) and Raman spectrometer – launched at the university yesterday – can be used in a variety of ways, from forensic work such as ink identification in forgery cases to paint identification in accident reports.

University physicist Prof Japie Engelbrecht said the instrument was used to obtain information about the molecular structure of compounds by means of “optical characterisation through infrared spectroscopy”.

“Both techniques – infrared spectroscopy and Raman spectroscopy – are used for optimal characterisation of … materials [solids, liquids and gases] and are especially used in chemistry departments,” he said.

“However, other disciplines, like materials science and physics, have also recognised the value of infrared and Raman spectroscopy.”

Engelbrecht said optical characterisation was the preferred method of obtaining research data because it was a non-destructive technique.

“This particular FTIR and Raman spectrometer covers the widest spectral range available in South Africa and is capable of analysing samples using infrared and Raman microscopy. It includes a liquid helium cryostat [-263°C] for analysing [at] extremely low temperatures. “The optical range and its temperature control ability make this the only model of its kind in the world.”

Fellow physics lecturer Mike Lee described the spectrometer as one of the best multi-use characterisation tools in the world.

“It is one of the most widely used tools in the chemical industry, although not limited to just the chemical industry,” he said.

Despite being officially launched yesterday, the instrument has been used by the university in a number of research projects, including the analysis of natural and synthetic fibres with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Summerstrand.

Other uses include measuring the properties of various medicines and identifying the mixture of fibres in garments.

The university has also used the spectrometer for the analysis of semiconductor materials, mineral samples and mammal teeth.

“We trust that the instrument will stimulate further research outputs and training of students across disciplines within science, engineering and health sciences,” Engelbrecht said.

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