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Cover Story

March 29, 2010
Volume 88, Number 13
pp. 27 - 31

Positive Signals

At Pittcon 2010, hints of an instrument industry upturn

Stu Borman

SHOW-AND-TELL: More than 2,000 booths were on hand at Pittcon 2010. Peter Cutts Photography
SHOW-AND-TELL More than 2,000 booths were on hand at Pittcon 2010.
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ARCHIMEDES: This particle-sizing instrument from Affinity Biosensors won this year’s first-place Pittcon Editors’ Gold Award. Peter Cutts Photography (All)
ARCHIMEDES This particle-sizing instrument from Affinity Biosensors won this year’s first-place Pittcon Editors’ Gold Award.

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After a rough winter in various parts of the U.S. this year, some attendees at the 2010 Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry & Applied Spectroscopy (Pittcon)—one of the world’s largest conferences and expositions on laboratory science—hoped to warm up a bit in usually toasty Orlando, Fla., where the annual meeting was held this year. If so, they were a little disappointed, as the Orlando weather was unusually cool during Pittcon week, Feb. 28 to March 5. For instance, temperatures hovered close to freezing on Wednesday night of the conference, when Pittcon sponsored a private event for attendees at Orlando’s Universal Studios Florida theme park.

Pittcon officials were also a little disappointed, not about the weather but about this year’s attendance figures, which were down modestly from last year. But in several other ways, things were looking up at Pittcon 2010. Instrument companies that exhibited their wares at the meeting seemed cautiously optimistic that demand for new instruments would continue to improve after a downturn due to the recent global economic crisis. And a couple of firms even announced acquisitions, reminiscent of more heady economic times.

This was, in general, not a year for spectacular advances in expensive new instruments introduced by the biggest instrument companies. For example, the top Pittcon Editors’ Gold Award, a prize for the most significant new instrument at Pittcon each year, was given to a small particle-sizing instrument made by a company that exhibited it at Pittcon 2010 in its distributor’s booth.

Total attendance at Pittcon dropped about 11% from 2009, to about 16,876, and the number of exhibitor booths dropped by the same percentage, to 2,005, although there were 125 new exhibitors present this year. “With the down economy and recent company consolidations and budget cutbacks, we’re very pleased with the figures this year,” said Pittcon 2010 President Annette Wilson, a laboratory manager at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “Exhibitors have been sending fewer people in recent years to reduce costs, but conferee [nonexhibitor] attendance has remained relatively steady.” As the economy improves, “I’m hopeful that we’ll see an upward trend” in future registration numbers, she said.

Stefan Fritsch, editor of the London-based newsletter Instrument News, agreed that the reduced attendance “reflects the strain of last year on the economy. Lots of companies, especially from Europe, thought twice about having a presence at the exhibition—or coming at all.”

But Tanya Samazan, managing editor of Instrument Business Outlook, a newsletter published by Strategic Directions International, in Los Angeles, believes the decline may be a bit more ominous. “Pittcon definitely has its place, but the show continues to lose important support from vendors and visitors, suggesting that changes are needed,” she said.

In fact, a few companies such as Bruker Corp., wishing to reduce their marketing expenses or preferring to exhibit in alternate years at Pittcon and Analytica, the biennial European analytical industry conference, continue to press Pittcon officials to change to an every-other-year schedule. But Pittcon administrators are firmly against such a move. In a statement, conference officials noted that “despite economic pressures, we remain committed to hosting this most important event on an annual basis.”

Pittcon’s mission “remains the same and clear,” said Wilson at the Pittcon 2010 C&EN Luncheon: “to present the premier annual forum for the laboratory science community; to provide valuable, cost-effective educational opportunities; facilitate scientific interaction—that face-to-face networking is so important—and support the laboratory science industry, parent societies, and other charitable endeavors.” She and other Pittcon officials believe meeting those goals requires an annual meeting.

For the analytical and life sciences instrument industry in general, “sales declined in 2009 but are expected to grow this year,” said Samazan. “Industrial end-markets will continue to lag, but U.S. stimulus funding, especially for life sciences research, should boost sales. The food safety market continues to be one of the strongest markets, as does biopharmaceuticals.” Geographically, the market for instruments in rapidly growing economies such as China’s “is a primary growth driver,” she said.

Fritsch’s assessment of the state of the industry was similar. “The first half of 2009 was considerably down” for the laboratory products and analytical instrument industry, he said, and “lots of companies made drastic cuts in their budgets to maintain profitability. But companies are looking forward to 2010 with hopes for improvement over what has been a difficult year for most.” Government stimulus funding in China, the U.S., and several European countries should boost instrument purchases by academic and government labs in the next two or three years, he said, but he noted that global economic fundamentals will have to continue to improve before upward momentum in industrial purchasing will become as evident.

Some industry representatives saw similar trends. “We’ve had some headwinds on the growth side, [but] things seem to be improving,” said Dionex President and Chief Executive Officer Frank Witney at the C&EN Luncheon. “We, like a lot of people, saw growth in China and other parts of Asia and had more problems in North America and Europe over the last year or so.”

“There were a lot of positive indicators at the end of 2009,” added Thermo Fisher Scientific Senior Vice President and President of Analytical Instruments Gregory J. Herrema at the C&EN Luncheon. “At least through the first two months of this year, it does feel like things are holding up pretty well.” Thermo Fisher has seen steady improvement in some industrial ordering for the past few months, he said, “indicating that global capacity in industry is really coming back on stream.”

One positive sign for the instrument industry is that “mergers and acquisition activities appear to be picking up,” Samazan noted. In particular, two major acquisitions—Agilent Technologies’ purchase of instrument maker Varian, a deal that hasn’t closed yet, and Danaher’s February purchase of mass spectrometer maker AB Sciex—“are expected to impact market dynamics,” she said. “Agilent’s acquisition puts it into a number of new technology markets,” she explained, including nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy and Fourier transform mass spectrometry. “And Danaher’s purchase of AB Sciex should provide a more competitive landscape. Also announced at about the time of the meeting was Merck’s offer to acquire Millipore, which makes chromatography and water purification products (C&EN, March 8, page 9).

Despite the recent economic downturn, “there were plenty of new products at Pittcon, indicating the industry’s resilience and growth prospects,” Samazan said. “Even smaller companies, which are more vulnerable to economic condition, showed many intriguing technologies.”

Indeed, the first-place Pittcon Editors’ Gold Award this year went to Archimedes, a particle-sizing instrument manufactured by a small start-up, Affinity Biosensors, in Santa Barbara, Calif. Affinity exhibited the instrument at the modest double-booth space of its worldwide distributor, Particle Sizing Systems, of Port Richey, Fla. Archmides uses microelectromechanical systems technology to measure particles, including living cells, one-by-one as they flow through the device. According to Affinity, the instrument has higher resolution and generates truer size distributions than conventional particle sizers, such as light-scattering instruments, in which data on many particles are averaged. The instrument is based on technology developed by the group of professor of biological engineering Scott Manalis of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an Affinity cofounder.

Companies that exhibited their wares seemed cautiously optimistic that demand for new instruments would continue to improve.

The third-place Pittcon Editors’ Bronze Award went to the infiTOF, a new type of small-format mass spectrometer made by MSI Tokyo, based on technology developed at Osaka University. The infiTOF is a compact, high-resolution time-of-flight (TOF) mass spectrometer that uses electron ionization detection and is primarily intended for gas chromatography-MS analysis, noted MS specialist I. Jonathan Amster of the University of Georgia, who evaluated Pittcon’s new MS products for C&EN this year. “The footprint of the mass spectrometer is considerably smaller than that of a conventional GC [gas chromatography] instrument,” he said. “The remarkable compactness and high performance is achieved by using an orbital TOF design for the mass analyzer.”

Two ion-trap mass spectrometers also caught Amster’s attention—Thermo Fisher’s LTQ Velos and Bruker Daltonics’ amaZon SL. The LTQ Velos, which Thermo Fisher calls “the world’s fastest and most sensitive ion-trap mass spectrometer,” made its Pittcon debut this year but was introduced earlier, at the 2009 American Society for Mass Spectrometry meeting. Thermo Fisher “took an already very solid platform, made some engineering changes to the ion transmission and ion energies for collisions, and got factor-of-two improvements in sensitivity and in the number of peptides they can detect for proteomics measurements,” Amster said.

Bruker describes its amaZon SL as an entry-level instrument. Amster noted that the performance gap between low-end mass spectrometers—such as ion-trap, quadrupole, and some TOF mass spectrometers—and high-end instruments—such as Fourier transform or Orbitrap spectrometers—has been shrinking. “TOF instruments have certainly closed the gap in terms of resolution and mass accuracy, and now ion traps are doing the same,” exemplified by specifications of instruments such as the amaZon SL, he said. With the amaZon SL, “Bruker has improved parameters like scan speed while maintaining reasonable mass resolution. AmaZon SL can, in 30 milliseconds, obtain a 1,000-atomic-mass-unit mass scan. This is great for coupling with high-resolution LC [liquid chromatography] and analyzing more components per run in MS/MS experiments,” Amster said.

According to chemistry professor R. Kenneth Marcus of Clemson University, who advised C&EN this year on atomic spectroscopy instruments, X-ray fluorescence (XRF) new products at Pittcon continued recent trends toward greater portability and the ability to analyze smaller sample areas. Handheld XRF instruments such as Thermo Fisher’s Niton XL2 handheld alloy analyzer facilitate “a variety of applications ranging from scrap-metal sorting to the detection of heavy metals in consumer products like children’s toys,” Marcus said. “The key idea here is taking the laboratory to the sample and analyzing it nondestructively in its native state, without dissolution,” he continued.

In the area of XRF microanalysis, “the use of novel optics allows delivery of X-ray probe beams to sample surfaces with spot sizes on the tens- to hundreds-of-micrometer level,” Marcus said. Such instruments can be invaluable for geology, materials science, and biology studies, among other applications. New XRF microanalysis systems at Pittcon included Spectro Analytical Instruments’ Spectro Midex and EDAX’s Orbis.

“The field of inductively coupled plasma MS (ICP/MS) has not seen appreciable innovation in mass analyzer design in the last decade,” Marcus said, but this year PerkinElmer and Spectro Analytical Instruments introduced instruments that represented “significant departures in analyzer geometries.” The PerkinElmer NexION 300 ICP/MS has a new geometry in which “a quadrupole ion lens steers ions 90 degrees, a hard left turn, toward the analyzer stage, while neutrals and photons pass straight through, not contributing to background signals at the detector,” he said. “In principle, this should provide higher ion beam intensities and lower noise and thus better limits of detection.”

Another notable new product this year, Marcus said, is Spectro Analytical Instruments’ Spectro MS, which earned this year’s second-place Pittcon Editors’ Silver Award. According to the company, Spectro MS is the first ICP/MS instrument featuring fully simultaneous ion measurement. It uses an innovative analyzer geometry and a large-format detector, Marcus said, to set “a totally new benchmark in atomic MS, in that it provides truly simultaneous multielement and multi-isotope analysis” across nearly the entire periodic table, between lithium and uranium. “The primary virtue of this instrument is the simultaneous nature of the ion sampling and detection, which should yield high-precision isotope ratio measurements and higher fidelity sampling of transient signals in chromatography and laser ablation sampling applications” than conventional ICP/MS systems with sequential mass spectrometers, Marcus said.

In molecular spectroscopy, C&EN was assisted this year by Katherine (Kallie) Willets, an expert in nanomaterials spectroscopy and microscopy at the University of Texas, Austin. “By far, the product that excited me most in molecular spectroscopy was the nanoIR from Anasys Instruments,” she said. “This system combines the rich vibrational information of infrared spectroscopy with the high-resolution imaging offered by atomic force microscopy. The instrument’s ability to measure IR absorption spectra from nanoscale regions of a sample is extremely exciting and opens up new avenues for nanoscale characterization using vibrational spectroscopy.”

In chromatography, NLISIS Chromatography’s Meltfit Column Guide “is interesting because it is more than just a capillary column connection system,” which NLISIS introduced earlier, “but also a rapid column swap-out solution,” said separations specialist Vincent T. Remcho of Oregon State University, who advised C&EN on separations new products. Others have come up with quick-release technology for GC column installation, but the Meltfit uses low-melting glass “to ensure that column connections are very secure,” he said.

Shimadzu Scientific Instruments’ new ultra-high-performance LC (UPLC) system, Nexera, offers high-temperature operation, making it possible “to do size exclusion chromatography [SEC] analyses, which require higher temperatures to get reasonable solubilities for higher molecular weight analytes,” Remcho said. “Coupled with rapid injection, this instrument will be an important addition to the family of UPLC tools available to separations scientists.”

And Waters introduced the Acquity UPLC BEH200, a column that’s appropriate for analysis of proteins and protein aggregates in a high-temperature SEC environment. “This is a highly porous packing material that is durable and crush resistant,” he said.

Capillary electrophoresis “has had a hard time getting a toehold in pharmaceutical analysis because of sensitivity and reproducibility issues,” Remcho said. The ability of Beckman Coulter’s PA 800 plus Pharmaceutical Analysis System “to do capillary isoelectric focusing in a fully automated way provides a mechanism for sample concentration enhancement, and that helps with the sensitivity issue,” he noted.

Key automation advances at Pittcon 2010 included Thermo Fisher’s Exactive Transcend LC/MS system, which uses automated on-line sample extraction to minimize sample preparation time,” Remcho said. Such systems “can improve throughput in really busy labs.”

And two portable GC/MS new products introduced at Pittcon “have very different strengths,” Remcho said. The Torion Guardion-7 capillary GC/ion-trap MS instrument “can be used to store ions and enhance sensitivity, which is an advantage in a portable system, where the compact GC component has limited resolving power,” he said. And Agilent’s 5975T Low Thermal Mass GC/MS Detector has a quadrupole mass analyzer and an electron-impact source, making it possible to determine unknowns by comparing data to “library spectra akin to what you’re accustomed to using with a benchtop instrument,” Remcho said.

“So the portable GC/MS market is pushing in two different design directions, and we’ll see which one plays out most effectively,” he noted.

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