Q: What does SGS do?
A: From our beginnings in 1878 as a grain inspection house, we have steadily grown into our role as the industry leader. Our core competencies in inspection, verification, testing, and certification are being continuously improved to be bestin- class. They are at the heart of what we are. Our chosen markets will be solely determined by our ability to be the most competitive and to consistently deliver unequalled service to our customers all over the world. SGS has its headquarters in Geneva and is listed on the Swiss Exchange. SGS has become the world’s leading inspection, verification, testing, and certification company. We are recognized as the global benchmark for quality and integrity. With more than 80,000 employees, we operate a network of more than 1,650 offices and laboratories around the world. The current structure of our company consists of ten business segments operating across ten geographical regions.
Q: What does your laboratory do?
A: We are in the oil, gas, and chemical business. If there’s one party buying a shipment and another party selling it, we’re the intermediary party that’s checking the quality and quantity of the product, either chemicals, petrochemicals, or the LPGs [liquefied petroleum gases]. We receive materials we don’t know much about and we test them against specifications. Those are typically sales specs or customer certifications on purity, impurities, and physical characteristics. Petrochemical testing involves a lot of gas chromatography (GC) work.
Q: What are the most important things to consider when you’re writing/developing a new gas chromatography method?
A: First of all, you need sufficient separation of the components you’re interested in, so it depends on whether you’re doing purity analysis or impurities. If you’re doing a purity analysis or composition, it’s [more focused] on the distribution of the different components you’re after, so you need sufficient separation to identify the components. If you’re looking at specific impurities, it’s sometimes easier to separate them from a matrix although it might require more advanced techniques like backflash, heart-cut, or multidimensional techniques but if you want to know purity, you need to consider all of the components in the matrix and that can be quite challenging to have it done in a single run. The second thing for our operation is that [the method] must be robust. We’re a 24/7 operation and the technicians have a lot of different techniques they have to work with, so it needs to be robust. Once it’s set up, we don’t need to go to the lowest detection limits, but the method needs to be stable and robust to run for 24/7 operations.
Q: What can happen if your method is flawed? How can you tell if it is flawed?
A: Well, the party on the other side, the receiving party for instance, would find different results and they would start questioning our results and that can result in claims and legal situations that can cost millions of dollars. That’s one of the worst things that can happen based on our results.
Q: How do you avoid those issues?
A: There’s always an analytical answer for these kinds of things. On one end, you want to try to ensure you do the same things from different sides of the job, if it’s on different sides of the ocean, for example. We try to work as much as possible with international standardized methods but it’s not always possible because there are not always methods for the kinds of products or impurities [the customer is] looking at. In that case, we have to develop something ourselves. That’s challenging because you can be confident about your own results and you can try to do all kinds of evaluations and validations, but you cannot control what’s happening on the other side. That means everything we do has to be traceable against standards, references, or complementary techniques.
Q: What are some resources that you’ve found to be useful when creating new methods?
A: All different types of publications, such as journals for chromatography or online journals with examples for actual products, not just standards. Every GC column or instrument comes with an ideal picture of reference standards, but I need chromatograms of real materials, for instance, or application notes of actual samples. It doesn’t have to be ideal separation but it gives me an idea of what might be possible and maybe I can improve on that. Publications about new techniques, new detectors, those are the kinds of things I’m looking at.
Q: Where do you see chromatography method writing/development going in the future? Where are things moving in your field?
A: In our field, I think our lab is quite ahead in data processing and software but I see that in our market as a whole, a lot is still being done by manual calculations and that can lead to a lot of errors. What I’ve found is that if you can automate a lot of these calculations, using platforms such as software and data systems, that can take a lot of work from the analysts, and a lot of errors out of the work. These platforms are there already in the pharmaceutical industry, which is far ahead of us so I think we can learn a lot. But in our business and operations, we’re always shying away a little bit from LIMS systems, because if your LIMS system breaks down, you cannot do anything. On the method development side, we’re looking for suppliers that can help us with that, suppliers that provide instrumentation that is configured and tested based upon our specifications. We try to give some of the basic configuration and method development to the suppliers. We outsource that kind of work so that means when they come with an instrument, it’s really plug-and-play— the proper columns are in there, they do the calibrations and some of the validations and that takes time away from us.