Short story of a technical goal, but a commercial failure
In the mid of 1990’s Pisa was a center for Advanced Electronics in Italy (home of CNUCE, Centro Nazionale Universitario di Calcolo Elettronico) and a not faint reflection of this situatin was present in the University Chemistry Department in Via Risorgimento; in the same buiding (still the same, but a bit more obsolete…) was housed the Istituto di Chimica Quantistica ed Energetica Molecolare ofl C.N.R. (Italian Research Council). Drs Roberto Ambrosetti and Domenico Ricci designed and assembled a small data acquisition board to be used on a PC, aimed to general spectroscopy, and designed with NMR in mind, that included:
– a basic pulse programmer
– fast 12 bit ADC (fast for the time: 40 ksamples/s)
– some digital control lines to control a few of external functions
The acquired signal (FID) was stored directly on the PC memory, an FFT algoritm was applied on real-time, and you get an (almost!) real-time diplay of both FID and spectrum: a feature only top-range and very expensive models of comercial equipment could exibit! Roberto Ambrosetti was the software guru and Domenico Ricci assembled breadboards full of TTL integrated circuits.
I was an abitual visitor in Via Risorgimento for NMR service, a good friend of the two guys and of course the thing draw my attention; by mere curiosity we quickly connected the board to a Varian XL100 NMR spectrometer; spectrometers were quite simple gears those years, you can easily work on and modify everything inside , and the marriage worked at first trial. I was astonished: a touch on the shim controls and the H2O FID and lineshape ond PC screen follow the changes, spinng sidebands go up and down: science fiction!
Next step was almost automatic: assemble an extremely simple minispectrometer, of course for 1H observe only, to recycle the 60 MHz permanent magnets and probes that, already obsolete, were standing in numbers to collect dust in basements and corridors. Easy to say, somewhat more complex to accomplish; the Acquisition Board was also patented at CNR care and expenses and I acquired the license for commercial applications. My “company” suddendly grew up from 1 to people: Andrea Corsi, top-level electronics technician; Giovanni della Lunga, with a PhD in Phisics and software specialist, and myself who, to be 100% honest, was the one less contributing in practical development of the product. Professional level printed circuit boards were designed and assembled, and a prototype spectrometer bult: the MiniFID was born! All the work was done in the garage in my house’s basement, as the Silicon Valley tradition demands (Hewlett-Packard, Varian and Apple has been generated all in a garage).
The following photos were shot in the lab/garage; these are are scans from color prints, no digital cameras available (at least at affordable prices).
The MiniFID was maybe a technical success, but for sure a commercial failure. Not being a businessman, the commercial side was much less of a pleasure, also because the MiniFID had a couple of drawbacks, the first being missing the NMR lock, and the consequent necessity to optimize the homogeneity observing the FID: exciting for old-styled spectroscopists, deadly boring if you are in hurry. Permanents magnets then have the attitude to drift in field with temperature and time, and without a lock this makes long-term averaging impossible.
By the time, with the introduction of the Personal Computer, first generation FT spectrometers became completely obsolete in the data system section, so that we adapted our acquisition board to replace the old racks full of boards and clumsy software; complete control of spectrometer was obtained with the addition of a few control lines, and some units were sold to users of Varian FT80 spectrometers.
A total of some 12 MiniFID and FT upgrades were sold in total, and we were successful also outside Italy; in Germany we sold a couple of units in Aachen, Germany, one being a modified version for B11 observe that gave me one of the best satisfactions of my professional life. With a good piece of luck, field from the magnet and frequency from our electronics were perfectly matched and we observed a FID at the very first pulse; both me and the customer were unbelieving and we took the sample out of the probe and reinserted it back a couple of times before being convinced. The second unit was at RTWH with Prof. Blumlich, and he was quite well impressed.
A couple of FT80 upgrades were also sold to foreign customers, one of them again in Germany at the Justus Liebig University in Giessen, and the other to a small pharmaceutical company in Haifa, Israel.
MiniFID had short life, we were not undertakes and we lack courage to invest time and money; therefore the dead of Minifid was unavoidable. I went back full time to field service, and the other friends followed their roads, but with time we had a couple of satisfactions: the MiniFID idea was not a bad one, and was adopted in USA by Anasazi Instr. , I sincerely hope with good success. And, maybe even more important, the guys of the team are still very good friends, and here an there we meet to have a glass of good wine together in the memory of MiniFID.