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August 13, 2007
Volume 85, Number 33
pp. 26-31

Tool Time

Instrument makers harness technology to pursue budding applications for their tools

Marc S. Reisch

SCIENTIFIC INSTRUMENT MAKERS are on a mission to take their instruments out of the lab and put them into everyone's hands. They want to make their mass spectrometers, infrared spectrophotometers, and ion detectors ubiquitous. In a world that fears terrorists, contaminated food, and airborne pollutants, instrument companies are working to design simple-to-operate, portable, affordable devices to identify threats or ensure safety.

Thermo Fisher
Metal's Mettle Worker analyzes petrochemical plant pipe alloys using X-ray fluorescence detector.

"If God made it, we can test for it," says Richard F. Begley, president of analytical sciences at PerkinElmer. "A day will come when people will want to know the details of what is in the water they drink, the air they breathe, and the food they eat."

Ten years from now, Begley predicts, people will notice more instruments in use out of the lab and in the field. Further into the future, "everybody will be able to buy a 'Star Trek' tricorder," he says, referring to the scanning tool used to analyze unfamiliar environments in the science-fiction television series. Many people already have glucose- and heart-monitoring equipment in their homes, Begley points out.

A maker of some of the most sophisticated scientific instruments, PerkinElmer designs and sells items such as high-throughput flash luminescent analyzers that are used by pharmaceutical laboratories to screen for potential new drugs. And although Begley might seem the wide-eyed dreamer when he suggests that complex, sophisticated devices can be "dumbed down," other executives at scientific instrument firms see eye to eye with him.

In fact, for some instrument makers, the future is already here. Cynthia Cai, petrochemical and chemical industry manager at instrument maker Agilent, says her firm strives to design simple, rugged, and portable instruments. Recent terrorism concerns, along with technical advances, have prompted the design of portable equipment rugged enough to be parachuted into war zones for chemical weapons testing, she points out.

Another company, Bruker Daltonics NBC Detection, also has chemical weapons on its corporate mind. Civil emergency response teams are getting the firm's handheld ion detection units, which will allow them to quickly determine if any suspected chemical warfare agents are present at the site of a terrorist attack, says Frank Thibodeau, vice president of Bruker.

Jon Shein, director of global marketing for Thermo Fisher's Niton analyzers business unit, is focusing on new markets in industrial settings. He says his firm's handheld X-ray fluorescence analyzers can easily go where heavier table-mounted analyzers haven't gone before to analyze the metal alloys in petrochemical and refinery tanks and pipes.

It was a Niton portable X-ray fluorescence analyzer that showed that a chemically resistant alloy pipe leading into a heat exchanger had been incorrectly replaced with a carbon steel pipe, resulting in a fire at BP's Texas City, Texas, refinery in July 2005, Shein says. Four months earlier, an explosion at the same plant killed 15 workers.

"Smaller, more sophisticated electronic components allow for increases in performance. They also allow us to make instruments that are less expensive and perform better than equipment just a few years old," says Sandra Rasmussen, PerkinElmer's director of strategic initiatives for life and analytical sciences.

"Twenty years ago, we supplied sophisticated instruments with complex software that easily intimidated all but a highly trained Ph.D.," Rasmussen says. Over time, industry demands for scientific analysis of everything from R&D to production line samples have increased. And so instrument manufacturers have taken a modular approach by combining an appropriate instrument with a sample-handling and software package that in many cases permits use by even an unsophisticated user.

"Expect to see a proliferation of instruments in new markets," Rasmussen says. For instance, her firm developed its Spectrum OilExpress System in cooperation with construction equipment maker Caterpillar. The system, based on a Fourier transform infrared spectrometer equipped with dedicated oil analysis software, helps to determine the appropriate time to change engine oil.

In addition, PerkinElmer is pushing into another new market: biodiesel fuel analysis. Rasmussen notes that "many entrepreneurial farmers without scientific training are opening biodiesel plants. They need robust technology with preconfigured software systems to allow them to verify the purity of the biodiesel fuel they produce."

Earlier this year, PerkinElmer introduced a line of biodiesel gas chromatography turnkey systems based on what Rasmussen calls a "plain vanilla" gas chromatograph coupled with instrument control and data-handling software. The preconfigured systems allow plant operators to ensure that their biodiesel meets U.S. and European standards.

THE GROWING biofuels industry has also attracted other scientific instrument makers. Curtis Campbell, high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) product manager for Shimadzu Scientific Instruments, says his firm began working with companies designing ethanol plants four years ago.

Designers wanted to equip the plants with easy-to-use test equipment simple enough for operators without chemical training. Readouts from the equipment would allow employees to make decisions on how the plant operates.

Shimadzu responded by supplying new ethanol plants with HPLC instruments to help companies measure and limit acetic acid by-products in the fermentation process, Campbell says. The firm also supplies gas chromatographs so ethanol makers can determine the level of denaturants added before they sell the fuel. Such additives ruin the ethanol's taste and render it lethal. Government regulators wouldn't be happy if the fuel were diverted for moonshine.

"We've done what we can to make instrument operation simple," he says. The firm designed appropriate software and supplies prepackaged reagents, columns, and other consumable materials needed to do testing in quality-control clean rooms.

Shimadzu is also designing systems to meet the needs of farmers and food processing customers. "We've had more customers come to us for food testing, especially since the recent food contamination scares," Campbell says, referring in part to the melamine pet food contamination incident this year.

Agilent's Cai says her firm has designed a new capillary flow liquid chromatograph suited to the needs of biodiesel makers. Based on the Agilent 7890 gas chromatograph, the instrument can cycle through an automated run to determine the fatty acid methyl ester content in biodiesel samples. Testing helps biodiesel makers limit contamination from the by-product glycerin. It also helps fuel users determine biodiesel content in blends with conventional diesel.

Using standard chromatography procedures, an experienced instrument user would take three hours to analyze the percentage of biodiesel in a fuel blend. With the firm's automated capillary-flow-technology-based instrument, Cai says, the complete test takes only 40 minutes.

Mike McMullen, vice president of Agilent's life sciences and chemical analysis unit, explains that good technology is just the starting point in instrument design. "Our strategy is to provide work-flow solutions" to improve workplace efficiency, he says. "Technology is great, but you can't design instruments that merely incorporate technology. They also have to be easy to use."

A recent technology advance at Agilent is a mass selective detector for trace ion detection that provides the user with a breakdown of a sample's chemical components. One potential use is detection of pesticide contamination in food. Custom software and a database coupled to the firm's Agilent 5975C gas chromatograph/mass selective detector can compare results from a sample to reference data for more than 900 pesticides.

Such a package makes it simpler and faster for food scientists to detect contamination, McMullen says. "What would take a senior analytical chemist eight hours to do, he can do in 30 minutes using our tools. In fact, we will even detect contaminants that a chemist would miss. You can't blame a chemist for getting tired over eight hours."

The firm ultimately hopes to develop sturdy portable food-testing equipment that can be brought close to where crops are growing. Transporting food samples to a lab in emerging markets such as China and India is difficult and time-consuming, McMullen points out. But the accuracy of truly portable equipment is not yet as reliable as it needs to be, he acknowledges.

The food industry needs fast, dependable, and easy-to-use safety tests, agrees Barbara Robleto, communications manager for DuPont's Qualicon diagnostic products business. Its BAX system adapts a polymerase chain reaction technique more closely associated with medical and biological research to test food for contaminants such as listeria, salmonella, and Escherichia coli. And it brings this capability into a food-processing plant.

CELL CULTURE methods to test for contamination might take several days, but DuPont's system provides results in anywhere from 90 minutes to three-and-a-half hours after enrichment. A simple red or green readout on a computer screen indicates whether the sample is contaminated. Industries that produce nutritional supplements are also adopting the BAX system for quality control on manufacturing lines, Robleto adds.

Harlen Hunter/IMS Photo
Fuel For Thought At an IndyCar series race, fuel is sampled for later analysis with a PerkinElmer Clarus 500 gas chromatograph. IndyCar is a registered trademark of Brickyard Trademarks Inc.; used with permission.

DuPont's seed business, Pioneer Hi-Bred, is involved in developing test protocols to gauge the ethanol yield potential of grain destined for use in fuel production. The firm recently signed an agreement to provide the North American unit of Swedish analytical instrument maker FOSS with ethanol-yield-potential calibration technology for use in the FOSS 1241 grain analyzer.

FOSS's analyzer is a desktop near-infrared transmittance unit typically used to analyze wheat, barley, corn, and other grains for such things as protein, moisture, and starch content. When loaded with the Pioneer reference data, the analyzer transforms into a tool that provides farmers and ethanol producers with estimates of ethanol yield in gallons per bushel for any commercial yellow corn, according to Daniel B. Jones, an account manager at Pioneer.

Although commercial demands such as pharmaceutical and food safety are the typical drivers for instrument development, governments can spur instrumentation innovation as well.

Bruker's Thibodeau says his firm developed an "autonomous facility monitor" designed to monitor the air in large buildings for the presence of toxic industrial chemicals or chemical warfare agents. The unit is based on the firm's RAID line of ion mobility spectrometers. Bruker secured funding to help develop it under the Department of Homeland Security's Autonomous Rapid Facility Chemical Agent Monitor R&D project.

Using a combination of proprietary software and hardware design, Bruker developed a unit that can monitor the air in government buildings, financial centers, hotels, and office buildings for the presence of airborne poisons such as phosgene, cyanide, sulfur dioxide, and chlorine, Thibodeau says. The unit is a little bigger than a bread box. Systems cost between $100,000 and $300,000, depending on the number of units needed to monitor a facility.

Manufacturing such a 24-hour-per-day monitoring system could have been possible 10 years ago had there been demand for it, Thibodeau says. But security concerns that emerged after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have created a market for such a detector, while technical advances have allowed construction of an instrument that is faster, more reliable, and more accurate than it could have been a decade ago.

TECHNOLOGY IMPROVEMENTS have also made it possible to develop exquisitely sensitive handheld X-ray fluorescence analyzers for metal-content analysis of such key components as refinery pipes and fittings, plane landing gears, and jet engine parts. Thermo Fisher's Shein says the devices his company supplies are "a model for miniaturization." He adds that "while we'll never replace lab analysis, the units can be counted on to determine what's really happening out in the field."

Like PerkinElmer's Begley, Shein brings up the "Star Trek" tricorder in describing Thermo Fisher's analyzer. But instead of evoking some distant future, he claims to have come as close as is possible to producing a tricorder today. With its three onboard processors, touch-screen display, and multiple language capability, the unit will quantify to parts per million elements from magnesium through the transuranic elements, he says.

Other scientific equipment is more difficult to make into a portable item, but designers have tried. According to Douglas W. Later, chief executive officer of instrument maker Torion Technologies, $6 million of funding from the Department of Defense during the past four years has allowed his firm to produce a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer that weighs less than 25 lb.

With Torion's Guardion-7, an unskilled user can collect and analyze samples within four minutes. Target reference data included in the portable unit's software analyzes chemical threats on the battlefield. Military personnel can convey samples back to a more fully equipped lab for confirmation, Later says.

The firm ultimately hopes to also sell the $50,000 units to nonmilitary users such as emergency responders, environmental regulators, and drug detection agencies. With further development and the appropriate reference software, Later expects to sell units capable of testing for food safety in the field and monitoring hydrocarbon streams at a refinery.

Meanwhile, a relatively new analysis technique promises not only fast analysis of samples but also reduction in the volume of waste organic reagents lab managers must dispose of. Todd Palcic, vice president of Thar Instruments, says supercritical fluid chromatography (SFC) with carbon dioxide serving as the solvent is a more sensitive and faster analytical tool than HPLC or gas chromatography.

According to Palcic, pharmaceutical research labs now use SFC to separate and characterize chiral compounds. "The pharmaceutical industry is our bread and butter," he says. But the future is in new markets such as the analysis of fuel, pesticides, herbicides, fine chemicals, and nutraceuticals, he says.

Adoption of the method in these newer markets is slow, Palcic admits, but Thar is hopeful others will see the benefit of SFC. To this end, the company recently acquired the Berger SFC division of Mettler Toledo. Now with more than 75 employees and new service locations in England and outside Philadelphia, Pittsburgh-based Thar is attempting to push into at least one of those new markets. The firm recently introduced a system tailored for fuel testing with its PetroAnalyzer system.

The desktop analyzer unit is designed to help fuel makers and government regulators test for aromatics and polynuclear aromatics content in diesel and jet fuel and olefins content in gasoline according to methods established by ASTM International, a standards-setting organization. The results determine whether the fuel meets minimum standards for use. Palcic says the analyzer can produce results in three minutes instead of the 30-100 minutes it would take for other chromatographic techniques.

That sophisticated scientific instruments might one day be in the hands of the average consumer may seem like a stretch of the imagination. But given the proliferation of instruments alongside manufacturing lines and in battle zones, office buildings, and refineries, it just might be feasible for a consumer to walk into Home Depot someday and buy an air quality monitor, a food spoilage analyzer, or some other device that today only a scientist or quality-control expert would want to have.

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