Materials Characterization: Fueled by Petroleum

Materials characterization instruments use a variety of techniques to analyze the physical properties of a sample. These properties include temperature, thermal response, force, hardness and particle size. Many materials characterization techniques involve more than one of these properties so that particular response curves can be calculated. In combination, these techniques provide information on the chemical, thermodynamic and physical behavior of materials and chemistries. These instruments represented nearly $2 billion in sales for 2007, and should grow 5.6% in 2008.

The fastest growth among these instruments will be found in calorimetry. Calorimetry’s 8% growth is primarily due to life science research involving ultrasensitive calorimetry, which is used to measure the affinities of biological molecules. Other calorimeters measure the thermal response of various materials during transitions or chemical reactions.

The next fastest growing segment of the materials characterization market also involves the measurement of thermal or thermodynamic properties: thermal analysis. There are a plethora of thermal techniques included in this category, and the most important technique is differential scanning calorimetry (DSC). Like standard calorimetery, DSC and similar techniques have applications in life science and pharmaceutical research. Other thermal analysis methods are more widely used in materials research with plastics and polymers. Some instruments also provide a measure of the physical response and strength of materials under different thermal conditions. Altogether, thermal analysis sales should grow about 7.5% in 2008.

Particle characterization is also experiencing relatively good growth, which is forecast at 6.3% for 2008. Although standard particle-sizing instruments remain the most important individual segment, the market is more diverse. Among the many different techniques for determining particle size, the greatest growth is expected for digital imaging systems that scan and record images of individual particles in a sample. These products, made possible by advances in computation, are practical for many applications in which accurate shape information is vital. Apart from particle sizing, there are a number of other techniques included in this area, such as particle counters and analyzers for zeta potential and surface area.

The largest individual segment in the materials characterization market is physical testing, representing nearly a third of the total. These instruments directly measure the strength and hardness of materials, or their fatigue profiles under stress. Although they are commonly associated with testing of structural materials, an increasing variety of specialized instruments have been developed for particular applications ranging from food to paper to medical devices. An interesting niche within physical testing continues to be nanoscale instrumentation. Traditional testing techniques have been miniaturized to the nanoscale for the testing of nanomaterials, coatings and other delicate structures. Overall, the physical testing segment should grow about 3.9% this year. After physical testing, the slowest growing techniques for 2008 are petroleum analysis and viscometry. Both are expected to post 2008 growth of 4.3%. Given the traditional nature of these measurements, this actually represents a relatively strong market.

Although there are some connections between the various techniques, the vendor situation is fragmented. Few of the market participants are involved in more than one or two areas, and the three largest competitors have just 8% of the total market each. Instron is the leader in physical testing and dominates the market. Waters’s TA Instruments division is the leader in thermal analysis and viscometry. Shimadzu participates in the four largest of the six segments; its strongest position is in physical testing.

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