Wavelength Tech Forum: MS

May 10, 2010

The technique of mass spectrometry seems to have infiltrated every facet of laboratory research and is now utilized in virtually every application area in the field of materials analysis. Joining us for this discussion are Nick Bukowski of ALMSCO; Wayne Duncan of Agilent Technologies, Inc.; and Charles Schneider and Steven Beres of PerkinElmer, Inc.

The technique of mass spectrometry seems to have infiltrated every facet of laboratory research and is now utilized in virtually every application area in the field of materials analysis. Joining us for this discussion are Nick Bukowski of ALMSCO; Wayne Duncan of Agilent Technologies, Inc.; and Charles Schneider and Steven Beres of PerkinElmer, Inc.

What have been the most important improvements in mass spectrometer technology over the past year?

Bukowski: One technological advance, perhaps worthy of note, is the advance in design of direct extraction time-of-flight (dx-TOF) mass spectrometry. Traditionally, TOF geometry is based around orthogonal acceleration (oa) largely as a necessity to gain maximum resolution for a given size of analyser “box.” However, with advances in ion source design, it’s now possible to obtain the benefit of direct extraction to yield maximum sensitivity while maintaining appropriate resolution for gas phase separations. This advance offers the opportunity to screen for target analytes, while at the same time screening for the transient appearance of “non-target” — but nevertheless — significant compounds.

Duncan: On the hardware side, it would be sensitivity, resolution, and acquisition speed derived from improvements in ionization efficiency and in ion optics. These improvements have all been driven bythe rapid advances in fast chromatography and peak capacity in the LC.On the software side, it is improvement in the ability to identifycompounds in complex matrices using tools like data bases.

Schneider: In my opinion, the most interesting developments in ICP-MS have been in the area of usability. One key to the further commercialization of ICP-MS is making the systems more rugged and easy to use. New technologies improving the overall ease-of-use through lower maintenance and improved long-term stability have made ICP-MS systems almost as rugged as optical ICP systems.

What application areas will be the most critical to the future growth of MS technology? (i.e., food safety, pharma, petroleum/biofuels/etc.)

Bukowski: Environmental toxicity and food quality will always drive growth in MS and high public profile issues, such as melamine, will from time to time cause a spike in demand. However, the heightened awareness within populations at risk in general, offers the potential for more sustained growth as producers of items such as consumer and household goods are required to monitor the impact on health of synthetic and natural formulations used in their products. This will necessarily demand a more detailed understanding of the composition of such formulations including those trace compounds that may otherwise be dismissed as by-products. For example, petroleum — although well understood from an energy perspective — is not so well characterized in terms of the impact that ultra-trace organics present may have on the environment. Responding to such challenges will demand MS and will favor technologies such as direct extraction time-of-flight (dx-TOF) for trace detection, not only of the traditional “target” analytes, but also simultaneously of the “transient targets.”

Duncan: In order of decreasing priority it would be clinical, food safety, biopharma, proteomics, and metabolomics.

Schneider and Beres: We see environmental and human health monitoring continuing to grow in the future. There are several sub categories which will be rapidly developing over the next few years, including food safety, nutraceuticals and traditional chinese medicines, increased monitoring of human biological fluids (urine, blood and tissue), and increased regulation of environmental elements especially speciation ofkey elements.

Is the increasing automation of MS instrumentation a good thing or a bad thing? (i.e., increased productivity vs. reduced expertise)

Bukowski: The deployment of MS within industries seeking comprehensive product characterization will necessarily demand reduced user involvement. This is a natural progression. However, the analytical industry has a track record of producing robust and relatively easy-to-use hardware. The challenge in automation is in the data analysis/interpretation. This will require mathematically sophisticated products that are simple in appearance.

Duncan: Automation is good due to higher productivity and lower operating costs. Along with increased automation is the need for improved reliability of the system, as well.

Schneider and Beres: As long as the data quality can be maintained, instrument automation is a good thing. However, since so much of the data quality is dependent upon the analyst; we don't see the effects of their impact being minimized for many years to come. Today, it'sstill too easy to produce bad data — there's no substitute for a goodanalyst. Our customers are being asked to do more with less (people,equipment, and training) and automation is a key step in their ability tomeet the demands of the marketplace.

What will the next critical advance in MS technology be in youropinion?

Bukowski: The reduced-cost integrated system with sampling, chromatographic separation, and high-performance mass analysis performed in a single package. This is what our user-base is asking for.

Duncan: It will be important to add additional dimensions of separation, such as true ion mobility, in order to remove the chemical interferences in complex samples.

With portable Raman, FT-IR, and X-ray technology growing in popularity every day, will there ever be similar portable MS instrumentation?

Bukowski: Yes, there are commercial examples already. We would envisage that miniaturized TOF-MS systems, albeit with restricted mass ranges, and highly specific sampling and separation systems, could deliver the selectivity and sensitivity advantages of lab-bound MS with true portability for near-real time analysis. TOFs do not rely on precise mechanical geometries like scanning MS instruments, so they are very robust; instead they rely on a rigid, temperature-compensating box and an expensive clock that keeps perfect time even with rough handling.

Duncan: For gas phase likely, not for liquid phase.

Beres: Most certainly. There are several portable MS systems available today!

What do you think?

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If you are interested in participating in any upcoming Technology Forums please contact Editor-in-Chief David Walsh or Associate Editor Meg Evans for more information. Next month’s forum will be a discussion about Raman.