The SpectroClick Origin Story Part 1 : One Trip Turns into Two

SpectroClick President Alex Scheeline
In 2008, I took my first trip to Asia. For decades, I thought my first trip there might be to Japan, where I had some research associates. Instead, I went to Hanoi, Vietnam to teach Chemistry 222, Quantitative Analysis, as part of a collaboration between the Faculty of Chemistry, Vietnam National University of Science – Hanoi (VNUS-H), and the Department of Chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), where I was Professor of Chemistry.

We compressed the entire semester class, the same course as the UIUC class with 28 lectures, into two weeks with three hours of lecture per day – intense and grueling for both professor and students. Thirty-seven eager students in the K51 class awaited – they were sophomore undergraduate students, mostly around 21 years old, because their first year at VNUS-H was intensive English in preparation for the rest of their classes, all taught in English

The classroom in Hanoi, built by the French prior to 1940, was an old style lecture hall with tiered seating. In the front row, the students appeared to have the usual expressions of expectancy, but not so obvious was an unusual level of competency. By the end of those two weeks, I found that these were some of the best students I had ever had the pleasure of teaching. Among them were at least 12 future Ph.D.s. Of course, I couldn’t yet know that.

In contrast to their classroom abilities, the students lacked exposure to laboratory instrumentation. None of them had ever had their hands on any instrument aside from an analytical balance. None had seen live, in-class demonstrations. They had laboratory experience, but it was not integrated with lectures. In the United States, in-class demonstrations are common (a practice going back at least to Michael Faraday in nineteenth century England). When I asked my Vietnamese colleagues for materials to demonstrate pH indicators in front of the class, it caused a minor revolution. But I was able to do this, and bringing a spectrophotometer from the research lab to the lecture hall was greeted with enthusiasm by the students. However, I was not allowed to move additional equipment from the faculty research lab to the classroom. They were fearful that moving the one precious potentiometer would break it, preventing the faculty from conducting research.

One of the front row students was Bùi Anh Thự, a young woman who said little, and didn’t appear to be one of the “gunners.” Had she not asked to have her picture taken with me that first May (as did other students), she would have been just part of the passing crowd.

Bùi Anh Thự and A. Scheeline, May 2008, Faculty of Chemistry, Hanoi. Picture by Dao Ha Anh.
Bùi Anh Thự and A. Scheeline, May 2008, Faculty of Chemistry, Hanoi. Picture by Dao Ha Anh.

At the end of the course, the VNUS-H Dean of the Faculty of Chemistry asked, “When are you coming back to teach Instrumental Analysis, Chemistry 420?” I squirmed. How can instrumental analysis be taught to students who have never used instruments, and who will have no instruments in class? I said I’d think about it, and as I flew out of Hanoi, I was far from convinced I would ever return.

By November, 2008, it was clear that the faculty in Hanoi really wanted Chem 420 to be taught, and I was the obvious person to do it. “How did I learn instrumentation?” I asked myself. “By building instruments.” Let’s see – what could we have these students build? A chromatograph? No, they’d need to pack columns, have detectors, and have injectors; which would be impractical. What about cyclic voltammetry or some other amperometric electrochemical technique? Too expensive; I was given no budget for supplies and I’ll have to do all this out-of-pocket.

Hmm. What about spectrophotometry?” At this point, I remembered that in the back of the Berkeley Physics Series, Volume 3 (Waves) there were some cheap optical components, including a diffraction grating in a 2” × 2” cardboard mount. I pulled the book off the shelf in my office, and sure enough, just as I had left it in the winter of 1972, there was the grating. “What could we use for a light source?” Maybe a white LED and a battery. We could fold up some paper to hold the LED at the correct height. The gratings are easy to obtain, and plastic cuvettes are 25 cents apiece. So we have everything for a crude spectrophotometer except for the detector.

What could we use for the detector? And then it hit me: many of the Vietnamese students had digital cameras. A few had cameras in their cell phones, and both of these cameras made JPG files. “If I can write software to use the JPGs to do quantitative work, that should be everything needed! The students already have the detectors!” And in a flash, the rudimentary spectrometer that would become the SpectroClick Kit was born. Almost immediately, anyone who heard of the idea blurted out the iPhone slogan, “there’s an app for that!” Little did I know that patent 7,420,663 was lurking, covering all cell phone spectrometry. But why would it matter? I thought that the 8 bit cameras in cell phones had such poor dynamic range and stability that they couldn’t be used for calibrated measurements.

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