Atomic Absorption: Current and Future Trends

August 8, 2011

Atomic absorption (AA) is a mature technique, but many laboratories are still finding room for innovation and continued success with it. Joining us for this discussion are Charles A. Schneider, PerkinElmer, Inc., and Fergus Keenan, Thermo Fisher Scientific.

Atomic absorption (AA) is a mature technique, but many laboratories are still finding room for innovation and continued success with it. Joining us for this discussion are Charles A. Schneider, PerkinElmer, Inc., and Fergus Keenan, Thermo Fisher Scientific.

There haven't been many "new" atomic absorption (AA) capabilities introduced over the last few years. What innovations and new capabilities do you see on the horizon for AA?

Schneider: Atomic absorption (AA) remains a very strong part of my company’s inorganic portfolio. We continue to invest R&D dollars in improving the capabilities of the AA systems. With the launch of a new series of instruments, we focused on improving performance, while making the instrument much smaller than other designs. My company made the systems very rugged and easier to use with dedicated application packs, offering a wide range of high-quality accessories and consumables. We also made the software available in several languages, which were all part of the project goals.

Keenan: I wouldn't necessarily agree that there hasn't been innovation in AA in recent times. For example, my company’s range of AA spectrometers feature some very advanced technology like high definition video cameras inside the graphite furnace for easy optimization and method development. Modern systems can recognize which lamp has been mounted and can actually auto-optimize and select the method parameters without user intervention. We have even developed an intelligent, automated spectrometer qualification tool that can validate the instrument performance and diagnose potential faults daily, again without user intervention. I expect further innovations to focus on productivity and even greater ease of use to ensure access to high performance elemental analysis for all users, regardless of skill level.

Do you see AA remaining as an important technique in your laboratory or do you see ICP and ICP-MS completely replacing AA in your laboratory?

Schneider: From a vendor point of view, the AA business remains very strong. Many customers tell us that they will continue to invest in new AA systems and will replace older AA spectrometers with newer models. Having said that, as customer's analytical needs increase in many areas for higher throughput, more analytes, or an increasing need for improved detection limits, they have added inductively coupled plasma–optical emission spectrometry (ICP-OES) or ICP–mass spectrometry (MS) capabilities.

Keenan: Absolutely, I see the importance of AA remaining intact. Flame AA is a super-fast technique with very high matrix tolerance requiring very little operator training to achieve quality results. It's the perfect tool for rapid elemental analysis with minimal method development and sample preparation. Adding graphite furnace capability opens up the technique to part-per-billion detection limits for a modest investment. Certainly ICP and ICP-MS have added capability for multielement simultaneous analysis and lower detection limits, but for labs with simpler requirements AA is still a very relevant technology.

Are there markets where AA will always be prominent and why? Consider flame, furnace, and vapor generation capabilities plus lab size and location.

Schneider: AA is ideally suited for the lab that has lower throughput or a small number of elements to perform. My company believes that this market will continue to thrive. Many regulations still exist that require AA analysis. Graphite furnace and hydride analysis improve detection limits and extend the capabilities of the system. Both are also well suited as a lower cost alternative making them attractive to countries that are trying to improve environmental or food safety. AA continues to be a very easy to use, safe, reliable solution to meet many customer needs.

Keenan: Yes, definitely. Aside from routine industrial applications there are places an AA system can go where you wouldn't or couldn't install an ICP or ICP-MS system, for example at a remote mineral exploration site or in a mobile laboratory. All a flame AA system requires for operation is electricity and acetylene. It will even run perfectly fine using welders' grade acetylene, a gas that is cheap and readily available globally. The same cannot be said for the argon required for ICP and ICP-MS, which is more expensive, has a high purity requirement, and isn't easily available in some parts of the world. Furthermore, all a graphite furnace AA system needs for operation is electricity. AA is an ideal tool in challenging environments and also in developing nations. A lab equipped with a dual atomizer AA spectrometer and vapor generation can very nearly match what a lab equipped with both ICP and ICP-MS can do, albeit at a slower sample throughput rate. Of course it also helps that the capital investment and running costs of a dual atomizer AA are significantly lower than for ICP and ICP-MS, which will always have an appeal to labs on a tight budget.