Like much of the instrumentation used in life science laboratories nowadays, LC-MS instruments have become faster, more accurate, and easier to use over the course of their evolution. These days, there are specific minimum requirements that every laboratory should keep in mind before purchasing an LC-MS instrument.
The educational requirements for LC-MS operators vary from one company to another. Generally LC-MS operators are not required to be university-educated or analytical chemists. “Quite often LC-MS operators are technicians who have a high school education along with some kind of vocational training,” says Steve Smith, senior director and mass spectrometry product manager, Waters Corporation (Milford, MA). Ideally, the user will perform the following duties on the instrument: sample loading, cleaning and maintenance, and generating the MS report. Most MS systems boast ease of use as one of their important features, which allows users who are not trained Ph.D.-level mass spectrometrists access to this powerful tool.
Operating an LC-MS instrument does require a lot of training, but the amount of training depends on the operational function to be performed. For very routine applications, a minimum of a high school diploma plus training is acceptable. When the operator has advanced responsibilities, a minimum of a college degree plus training is required. To perform research using a mass spectrometer, a Ph.D. is required. Many companies, such as Thermo Fisher Scientific, offer courses to train new and experienced users in their customers’ labs. “We try to minimize the training by making the software as easy to use as possible, as well as by making the tuning and calibration of instruments automated,” says Ian Jardine, Ph.D., vice president and chief technology officer for life sciences and mass spectrometry for Thermo Fisher Scientific (San Jose, CA).
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Consumables: Solvent use, columns
The main consumable for any LC-MS system is the solvent, and these systems require a continuous supply of solvents. “As mass spectrometry becomes more sensitive, the demand for high-quality solvents increases,” says Smith. LC-MS systems require regular maintenance, such as tuning and calibration, and the solvent or solvents may be needed for these purposes as well. “However, the level of required maintenance is becoming less and less as these systems are becoming more and more reliable,” says Smith.
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Solvent usage is necessary for effective chromatographic separation. Solvent usage is also a key aspect in LC mass spectrometry operations. End users are optimizing their sample separations with large amounts of acetonitrile or methanol. On multiple instruments over long periods of time, they are spending exorbitant amounts of money for use and disposal of these solvents. “PerkinElmer is reducing these costs by providing novel technologies that reduce solvent usage by at least a factor of 10, if not 20 or 30, while generating rapid, high-quality results. We accomplish this with our proprietary LC-MS interfaces; our unique, personalized separation probes; and even with our new AxION DSA (Direct Sample Analysis) system, which eliminates the need for chromatography to introduce samples to the mass spectrometer,” says Sal Iacono, vice president and general manager of mass spectrometry for PerkinElmer (Waltham, MA).
Analyses Using the Direct Sample Analysis SystemAxION | PerkinElmer | www.perkinelmer.com
“As mass spectrometry becomes more sensitive, the demand for high-quality solvents increases.”
Chromatography columns are also an important consumable for LC-MS systems. Chromatography columns cost approximately $300 on average. “So if you are quantifying analytes in a sample every five minutes, then you might have to replace the column every week or every couple of weeks,” says Jardine. This is a highthroughput example. However, if the user is performing very low-throughput applications, then not as much of the annual budget is spent on replacement columns.
In terms of overall operations, throughput—that is, the number of samples that can be processed per unit of time—is an important feature that one should consider before purchasing an LC-MS system. Since throughput is an important factor in determining the cost per sample, the level of throughput influences the cost of ownership and therefore would influence the model or platform that is purchased. Disposable sample cards are used to insert the sample into the LC-MS system for processing.
In terms of maintenance costs for LC-MS, the system owner can expect to spend about 5 to 10 percent of the initial cost of the system annually. For example, for $500,000 worth of LC-MS equipment, the annual maintenance costs would be a minimum of $25,000 to $50,000. Although this might be cost-prohibitive for some labs, the return on investment for LC-MS is high enough that these maintenance costs become negligible. In summary, educational requirements, consumables, throughput, and maintenance costs are absolutely crucial to the decision to purchase an LC-MS system. As this instrumentation evolves, it is likely that the requirements will become greater in number and complexity.