IR vs Raman Spectroscopy

by | May 1, 2024

IR and Raman spectroscopy play pivotal roles in analytical science. Discover their advantages, limitations, applications, and more.

Infrared (IR) and Raman spectroscopy are mainstay analytical techniques in many industries, offering unique insights into the vibrational and rotational behavior of molecules. These techniques serve as indispensable tools in determining molecular structures and dynamics, paving the way for advancements in various fields, including drug screening, diagnostics, material science, and food authentication.

Tom Tague, Ph.D. Applications Manager at Bruker Optics, explains that at their essence, IR and Raman spectroscopy share fundamental principles, but they diverge in their selection criteria. They are both types of vibrational spectroscopy, providing information about the vibration of molecular bonds as a material interacts with light. These two technologies often have similar use cases, and it can be confusing to determine which is ideal for a given application. 

We explore the nuances of IR and Raman spectroscopy, examining more about these two techniques and their methodologies, advantages, and applications. We also look to the future to see what’s in store for these powerful technologies.

What Is IR Spectroscopy?

IR spectroscopy is based on the principle of the molecular absorption and emission of IR radiation. When a molecule absorbs IR light, it is excited to a higher level of vibrational energy. IR spectroscopy examines the vibrational modes of a molecule’s chemical bonds, resulting in spectra that offer detailed compositional and structural information.

A key advantage of IR spectroscopy is its sensitivity to certain functional groups, including some reaction intermediates. In addition, this technique is nondestructive and requires minimal sample preparation, making it an attractive option for many diverse applications.

IR spectroscopy does come with its limitations. It is sensitive to sample thickness and interference from water vapor, and symmetric modes of vibration are typically weak. As such, diligent calibration and careful sample handling may be necessary.

What Is Raman Spectroscopy?

Raman spectroscopy leverages the phenomenon of inelastic scattering of monochromatic light by molecules. When a molecule is irradiated, it is excited to a virtual energy state. This technology offers insights into molecular vibrations that are not readily analyzed by other means. Rather than replacing IR spectroscopy, Raman spectroscopy often offers a complementary analytical technique. Raman spectra exhibit vibrational content resulting from symmetric modes of vibration, enabling scientists to identify molecular species and determine structural information that IR spectroscopy can’t provide. 

Raman spectroscopy can analyze a broad range of sample types, including aqueous solutions, solids, and gases, and doesn’t require extensive sample preparation. One of the main advantages of this technique is its versatility. As Tague explains, the efficacy of Raman spectroscopy in analyzing pigments, for instance, surpasses that of IR spectroscopy due to its ability to operate in the far-infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum, where inorganic pigment bands are present.

Despite its versatility, Raman spectroscopy does present challenges. The Raman scattering signal is inherently weak, and IR spectroscopy is generally considered the more sensitive of the two techniques. Another potential issue with Raman and IR spectra is the exhibition of spectral congestion—where vibrational bands overlap and may not be resolved—particularly in complex matrices. This may be overcome but requires careful spectral interpretation.

What Are Some Key Applications for IR and Raman Spectroscopy?

Both IR and Raman spectroscopy are considered indispensable in various scientific and industrial domains. Within pharmaceuticals, both techniques are employed for drug characterization, polymorph identification, and quality control, among other applications. In environmental monitoring, IR and Raman spectroscopy facilitate the analysis of pollutants, contaminants, and biomolecules in diverse matrices. In addition, these techniques find widespread applications in food authentication, materials science, forensics, and biomedical research.

So, what determines which technology should be used? Tague advises that while both techniques facilitate molecular characterization through interaction with light, their distinct approaches offer complementary insights into chemical behavior. He emphasizes the significance of vibrational modes and symmetry considerations. “When you look at the molecule symmetry, if the vibrational modes are anti-symmetric, they will work well with infrared spectroscopy. Symmetric modes of vibration work well with Raman spectroscopy. So they're highly complementary.”

Tague’s hands-on experience in applying spectroscopic techniques to real-world challenges provides interesting insights into unique applications. In one notable instance, he collaborated with a museum curator to analyze pigments on a Jackson Pollock painting using handheld Raman spectroscopy. The resulting data not only authenticated the artwork but also laid the groundwork for future analyses of purported Pollock paintings.

Tague also highlights the pivotal role of spectroscopy in reverse engineering, citing examples ranging from historical artifact restoration to industrial innovation. He explains that both IR and Raman spectroscopy can identify materials in rival products, helping to advance innovation and maintain a competitive edge in dynamic markets.

What Does the Future Hold for IR and Raman Spectroscopy?

Looking ahead, it’s clear that the future of IR and Raman spectroscopy is poised for further advancements. Emerging developments in technology and instrumentation, such as portable and handheld spectrometers, increase accessibility and enable in situ analysis in challenging environments. For example, recent advancements in Raman spectroscopy include pancreas cyst disease diagnosis, and within IR spectroscopy, we are seeing handheld devices that detect fentanyl within seconds.

What’s more, integration with computational methods, such as machine learning, offers the potential to enhance spectral interpretation and accelerate data analysis workflows. Indeed, Tague sheds light on recent breakthroughs in spectroscopic methodologies. He explains how the integration of AI-based image analysis and quantum cascade laser technologies represents a key shift in fields such as medical diagnostics and environmental monitoring. Tague emphasizes that these advancements signal a new era of faster, more accurate analyses with far-reaching implications for scientific research and industrial applications.

There’s no doubt that the future of spectroscopy holds immense promise, driven by ongoing advancements in instrumentation and data analytics. Tague expects that with innovations such as brighter sources, better detectors, and enhanced workflows, the horizon of possibilities continues to expand.


While each technique has its own strengths and limitations, together, IR and Raman spectroscopy play pivotal roles in determining molecular structure and dynamics. Technological advancements are propelling these fields forward, highlighting new pathways for scientific research.

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