FTIR Spectroscopy - Fundamental Theory and Applications

Introduction to FTIR Spectroscopy

FTIR Spectroscopy, fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy, is concerned with the vibration of molecules.  Each functional group has its own discrete vibrational energy which can be used to identify a molecule through the combination of all of the functional groups. This makes FTIR microscopy ideal for sample ID, multilayer film characterization, and particle analysis.

History of FTIR Spectroscopy

FT-IR Spectrometers
FT/IR-6800 Research FTIR Spectrometer

The first Infrared spectra were generated using gratings to scan the infrared spectral region, slits to isolate spectral lines, and thermopiles for the detection of infrared light. Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) spectrometers do not use gratings, but rather spectra are generated in the time domain, following the position of a moving mirror and the occurrence of constructive and destructive interference. A Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) then converts the signal from time to frequency domain. Since the FFT calculation takes time to compute, the development of commercial FTIR spectroscopy closely followed the trend of the increased power and miniaturization of computers. By the 1980s gratings-based instruments were phased out for the more desirable interferometer type spectrometers. FTIR has three main advantages over gratings-based measurements.

  1. Fellgett’s Advantage – the full spectrum reaches the detector simultaneously  (instead of a small band of radiation as in grating-based spectrometers), the spectrum takes much less time to collect.
  2. Jaquinot’s Advantage –  since there are fewer optics and no slits, the total power at each data point is much greater.
  3. Conne’s Advantage – the resolution is much greater than with a grating, enabling spectral subtraction, concentration curves, and library searches among other functions.

FTIR Spectroscopy Principles

The electromagnetic spectrum consists of different regions corresponding to different energy (E), frequency (ѵ), and wavelength (λ) ranges as seen in Figure 1. The unit for near-, mid-, and far-infrared, the wavenumber (cm-1), is derived from the inverse relationship between wavelength and frequency.

Electromagnetic spectrum
Figure 1. Electromagnetic Spectrum

FTIR spectroscopy takes advantage of how IR light changes the dipole moments in molecules (Fig. 2) that correspond to a specific vibrational energy. Vibrational energy corresponds to two variables: reduced mass (μ) and bond spring constant (k) (Equation 1). For k constant, we can look at C-C, C=C, and C≡C showing an increase of 800 cm-1 across the series (Table 1). Substituting atoms in a C-C bond with nitrogen and oxygen causes a shift of 100 cm-1 (Table 2). By looking at the two series, it can be seen that bond strength alters the wavenumbers more than mass.

Interaction between infrared light and matter.
Figure 2. Interaction between infrared light and matter.

Table 1. Equation 2. Table 2.

Since every functional group is composed of different atoms and bond strengths, vibrations are unique to functional groups, and classes of functional groups (e.g. O-H and C-H stretches appear around 3200 cm-1 and 2900 cm-1, respectively). A correlation chart with various functional group vibrations can be seen in Figure 3. Since the collection of vibrational energy bands for all of the functional groups a molecule is unique to every molecule, these peaks can be used for identification using library searches of comprehensive sample databases.

Infrared correlation table
Figure 3. FTIR Spectroscopy functional group correlation table

How Does FTIR Work?

The three major parts of an FTIR are the source, interferometer, and detector (Figure 4).

Parts of an FTIR spectrometer with source, interferometer, and detector.
Figure 4. Parts of an FTIR spectrometer with source, interferometer, and detector.

The source is typically a broadband emitter such as a mid-IR ceramic source (50-7,800 cm-1), a near-IR halogen lamp (2,200 – 25,000 cm-1), or a far-IR mercury lamp (10-700 cm-1). The interferometer is the heart of FTIR and consists of a beamsplitter, a stationary mirror, a moving mirror, and a timing laser (box in figure 4). The beamsplitter splits the light from a source into two paths with half the light going to a stationary mirror and the other half going to a moving mirror.  In many FTIR systems, the beamsplitter is placed at 45 degrees to the incident beam, but for high throughput applications, a low angle interferometer (such as the 28-degree design used by JASCO) is preferred as the P and S polarizations converge close to the Brewster’s Angle. Common beamsplitter materials are KBr (375 – 12,000 cm-1) for mid-IR, Quartz (4,000 – 25,000 cm-1) for near-IR, and Mylar (30 – 680 cm-1) for far-IR. The beams from the moving and stationary mirrors are recombined back at the beamsplitter and steered toward the sample.   The difference in the path of the mirrors causes constructive and destructive interference over the course of time it takes for the moving mirror to make a pass.  The signal versus mirror position (and, thus, time) is called an interferogram.  A laser is used to determine the position of the moving mirror using the precisely known wavelength of the laser (Figure 5). HeNe lasers are the industry norm due to their excellent wavelength stability compared to solid-state or diode lasers. This laser stability allows for spectral additions, library searches, and other functions that need high wavenumber accuracy (Connes Advantage).

Function of timing laser in FTIR. Each data point in the infrared is taken when the laser interferogram has neither constructive or destructive interference.
Figure 5. The function of timing laser in FTIR. Each data point in the infrared is taken when the laser interferogram has neither constructive nor destructive interference.

The light then is steered through the sample and onto a detector where the time domain signal is converted to the frequency domain via a Fast Fourier Transform. The power of the beam (Po) is attenuated by the sample by absorbance by the sample (Po), Figure 6. The relationship between power, transmittance, and absorbance can be seen in Equation 3.

Attenuation of light through a sample.
Figure 6. Attenuation of light through a sample.

Detectors convert photons into measurable electric signals to be sent to the computer. Common detectors include room temperature DLaTGS (220 to 15,000 cm-1) for routine analysis, liquid nitrogen cooled MCT (450 to 12,000 cm-1) for high sensitivity applications, Si-photodiodes (10,000 to 25,000 cm-1) for visible and near-IR, and silicon bolometers (10 to 650 cm-1) for the far-IR . A list of sources, windows, beamsplitters, and detectors may be found in Table 3.

Wavenumber range of optical components used in FTIR spectroscopy.
Table 3. Wavenumber range of optical components used in FTIR spectroscopy.

Near-IR Spectroscopy

The Near-IR portion of the electromagnetic spectrum falls between 4,000 to 12,800 cm-1. This region consists of overtones (two of the same vibrational modes occurring simultaneously) and combinations (two different vibrational modes occurring simultaneously). Since these modes are not strictly quantum mechanically allowed, the intensity of the modes is often quite low. These spectra are often complex, and chemometric techniques, such as multivariate analysis, are used. In spite of the drawbacks, there are clear advantages to Near-IR spectroscopy. Firstly, the path length of the light is such that bulk samples can be analyzed with little to no sample preparation. Secondly, water does not affect signal as it does in mid-IR. These two benefits have been of great value to process chemistry and bulk analysis of incoming/outgoing goods.

Far-IR Spectroscopy

The Far Infrared region lies between 10 cm-1 and 700 cm-1. The bonds that show in this region are 3+ atom functional groups, such as -C-C-C- bending, and lattice vibrations in crystalline materials. Since these are highly dependent on conformation or crystal structure, materials with the same chemical structure, but different crystal structures may be distinguished using Far-IR. There are two disadvantages to Far IR. Firstly, water absorbs strongly in this region making a purged or evacuated system absolutely necessary. Secondly, the intensity of these modes is weak, so sensitive detectors and high-powered sources are needed.

Sampling for FTIR Spectroscopy

Attenuated Total Reflectance (ATR)

The use of Attenuated Total Reflectance (ATR) in FTIR spectroscopy has become the primary sampling method for FTIR spectroscopy. The major advantage is the lack of sample preparation for liquid and solid samples. When light reflects off of certain materials (diamond, ZnSe, etc.) at a critical angle, the light undergoes total reflectance with a small amount of light being absorbed into the material (sample) in contact with the crystal surface, Figure 7. The penetration depth is dependent on the refractive index of both the sample (generally ~1.5) and the crystal itself. Since the refractive index is defendant on wavelength, spectra taken with ATR have slightly different intensity ratios across the spectrum and may need to be corrected to compare to transmission spectra.

Light path for an ATR experiment in FTIR spectroscopy.
Figure 7. Lightpath for an ATR experiment.

The three most common crystals are diamond, zinc selenide, and germanium, each having advantages and disadvantages. Diamond crystals are rugged, have a penetration depth of 1.5 microns, low wavenumber cutoff (200 cm-1) but have poor throughput in the 2200 cm-1 region. ZnSe has exceptional throughput but a high cutoff (650 cm-1). Germanium has a very low penetration depth (0.8 microns) and is useful for highly absorbing substances. The properties and care of common ATR crystals can be found in Table 3.


Transmission is the most straightforward technique but requires the most sample preparation. The light from the interferometer passes through a sample (Figure 8), with the desired beam path through the sample dependent on the state (solid, liquid, or gas). For solids, either a KBr pellet containing the sample may be pressed or a diamond anvil cell may be used. For liquids, the sample may be injected into a liquid cell or applied to an IR transparent window or card. Gases may be monitored after being introduced into a gas cell. Often times gas cells are heated to avoid condensation inside the cell.

Transmission of solids, liquids, and gasses beam path and sampling options
Figure 8. Transmission of solids, liquids, and gasses beam path and sampling options.

Specular Reflectance

Specular reflectance makes use of reflected light and is useful for flat, shiny, or samples or coatings. Little or no sample preparation is needed. Sometimes spectra obtained from this technique include both the imaginary and real components of the light, giving rise to derivative peaks or other distortions. Kramers-Kronig correction may be used to fix distortions.

Illustration of specular reflection FTIR Spectroscopy along with typical sampling accessory.
Figure 9. Illustration of specular reflection FTIR Spectroscopy along with typical sampling accessory.

Diffuse Reflectance

Diffuse reflectance (DRIFT) makes use of scattered light and is thus useful for rough samples such as powders. Sample preparation can be a solid powder (neat), powder mixed with KBr, or abraded sample on special abrasive paper. To properly compare relative peak intensities from a transmission spectrum, a Kubelka-Munk correction is required.

Illustration of diffuse reflectance and typical DRIFT accessory.
Figure 10. Illustration of diffuse reflectance and typical DRIFT accessory.

FTIR Microscopy

FTIR is also used for microscopy for microanalysis of the same types of materials that are studied using macro IR measurement. An FTIR Microscope uses reflection optics to observe and focus infrared light onto samples.  Transmission, Reflection, Attenuated Total Reflectance, and Grazing Angle objectives are used to transmit and collect infrared energy to a small spot (5-50 μm) on the sample of interest.  Multiple measurements in selected, spots, lines or 3D grids can be used to generate a chemical map.  This mapping may be enhanced using imaging analysis, chemometrics and library search to automatically identify components and their distribution in a sample. More about FTIR microscopy can be found here.

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Applications of FTIR Spectroscopy:

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