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Bringing the Lab to the Field

The latest handheld instruments for remote use

Erica Tennenhouse, PhD

Erica Tennenhouse, PhD, is the managing editor of Clinical Lab Manager.

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Testing and analyzing samples typically requires that those samples first be transported to a laboratory. However, sometimes it is preferable or necessary to conduct testing and analysis on-site, wherever that may be. Field instruments have become essential in a wide range of applications, including monitoring environmental parameters, identifying materials, measuring components of food, detecting narcotics, and testing pharmaceuticals. With many recent advances, the latest handheld devices on the market are lighter, faster, more accurate, and more user-friendly than their predecessors.

Keeping tabs on the environment

Handheld instruments have increasingly enabled those conducting environmental tests to obtain real-time results from often-remote field locations.

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Jenway portable pH meter.pH is commonly measured in water and soil as an indicator of pollution and environmental health. The new Jenway portable pH meters offered by Bibby Scientific can be used in the field, eliminating the need to take samples back to the lab. Model 550 is a general-purpose portable pH meter that displays both temperature-compensated pH readings and temperature, while Model 570 is a handheld pH, mV, and temperature meter that displays either temperature-compensated pH readings or electrode potential and temperature readings.

If the need for laboratory-quality gas chromatography arises in the field, there is a new platform from Falcon Analytics that can deliver analyses from any vehicle with at least a 250 amp alternator. The CALIDUS Mobile GC System can be applied to all sample types, whether they are in a liquid or a gas phase. Among its applications, the instrument can perform environmental emissions monitoring, such as spill and leak quantification and automotive emissions testing.

The CALIDUS Mobile GC System.Recording data in the field can be challenging, particularly in remote locations with limited Internet access. The new Matrix Gemini Field Analytics System from Autoscribe Informatics extends the use of their LIMS (laboratory information management system) to the field, allowing test data to be recorded off-line and uploaded to the LIMS when an Internet connection can be reestablished. The Field Analytics System is designed to operate on an Android tablet or mobile device and to sync with the Matrix Gemini LIMS database.

The Matrix Gemini Field Analytics System from Autoscribe Informatics.At this year’s American Society for Mass Spectrometry conference, FLIR Systems announced the Griffin G510 Gas Chromatograph-Mass Spectrometer (GC/MS), the company’s first person-portable chemical identifier. Among its applications, the system equips environmental monitoring and remediation teams to analyze chemicals in real time. Designed to withstand harsh environments, the FLIR Griffin G510 enables users to easily sample all phases of matter, including solid, liquid, and vapor, in order to rapidly identify chemical hazards in the field. The device comes equipped with an integrated heated sample probe designed for downrange missions. When used in survey mode, it identifies vapor-phase chemicals within seconds. The split/splitless injector allows environmental, forensic, and hazardous material sampling by enabling syringe injection of organic liquids. “The FLIR Griffin G510 is a groundbreaking chemical analysis tool that brings versatility and lab-quality performance and identification to the field,” says Dennis Barket, Jr., vice president and general manager of FLIR Detection.

Analyzing materials

Whether one is sorting, identifying, or testing materials, time is often of the essence; a handheld device can significantly speed up the process.

The Vulcan metal analyzer from Oxford Instruments.Oxford Instruments’ new Vulcan, a handheld laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) analyzer, can measure metal alloys in just one second. The speed of the device allows large inventories of incoming raw materials or finished parts to be checked very quickly and large quantities of scrap metal to be sorted in scrapyards easily and quickly. According to Mikko Järvikivi, product manager, Oxford Instruments, Vulcan “delivers unparalleled speed, ease of use, and ruggedness while still providing accurate and precise results for all common alloy types.”

SPECTRO Analytical Instruments recently upgraded its SPECTRO xSORT handheld X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer to provide greater speed and precision in the analysis of light elements. The device is ideal for performing positive material identification for infrastructure integrity testing at refineries, power plants, and petrochemical complexes and for scrap metal analysis and sorting in the recycling industry. The SPECTRO xSORT Alloy model delivers grade identification in seconds. The even more powerful SPECTRO xSORT AlloyPlus model is capable of analyzing most alloys in two seconds, and it identifies alloys based on light elements such as aluminum, magnesium, silicon, phosphorus, and sulfur in seven seconds.

The SPECTRO xSORT handheld XRF spectrometer.Although it works as quickly as the handheld XRF, SPECTRO’s new SPECTROPORT portable arc/spark optical emission spectrometer (OES) is better suited to accurately analyze elements such as carbon, sulfur, phosphorus, boron, lithium, beryllium, calcium, silicon, magnesium, and aluminum at low and critical levels. The unit is smaller and lighter than the mobile SPECTROTEST OES analyzer and can be used cordlessly with a rechargeable battery pack for testing in difficult-to-reach places.

Food and beverage testing

Because many foods are perishable, portable testing devices are essential for determining the compositions of foods we consume, for testing food authenticity, and for identifying substances that could potentially be harmful.

The Portable Brix Meter BX-1 from JM Science.For those taking brix measurements of fruits and vegetables, alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages, and seasoning sugars, JM Science offers the new Portable Brix Meter BX-1. The device is a handheld brix meter that can be used easily by anyone in any location, can take measurements in two seconds, and comes equipped with a wide measuring range and a long-lasting battery that allows a user to run more than 30,000 measurements.

Wine sometimes gets tainted with trichloroanisole (TCA), a natural compound that is formed from precursors present in the wood of the cork tree that impart an undesirable smell. The analysis of TCA in tainted wines generally requires sample preparation like liquid/liquid extraction, solid-phase extraction, or distillation methods, frequently with the disadvantage of organic solvent use. Measuring TCA in wine is also challenging because wine contains many additional compounds at low concentrations. The zNose® from AZO Materials is a small and portable handheld GC that attains 10-second speed with the use of a direct heated, one-meter column and a new solid-state integrating GC detector. This device is the first electronic nose that has accomplished reaching the same level of sensitivity to TCA as a panel of wine experts has.

Elucidating drugs

Drug manufacturers and law enforcement agencies increasingly require powerful and sophisticated yet easy-to-use handheld technology for analysis of medicinal drugs and narcotics.

Thermo Scientific’s TruNarc handheld narcotics analyzer.Thermo Scientific has recently broadened the list of drugs detectable by its TruNarc handheld narcotics analyzer. The most recent software update adds dibutylone, furanyl fentanyl, and U-47700 to its onboard library, which now includes nearly 300 suspected narcotics and narcotics precursors and an additional 80 common cutting agents. “The TruNarc analyzer’s latest library update is designed to equip field agents with updated capabilities to stay ahead of emerging narcotics threats and more quickly get drug users the treatment they need,” says Denzil Vaughn, director of marketing for portable analytical instruments at Thermo Scientific. The analyzer accurately identifies chemicals using Raman spectroscopy.

Raman technology is also the basis for the latest handheld spectrometer from Metrohm USA—the Mira M-3. This device is ideally suited for pharmaceutical applications, as its software integrates compliance with FDA regulations. It also offers audit trails and secure electronic records. Unlike with similar handheld instruments that hide control of data collection, Mira M-3 users can save a method and distribute it to one or more instruments.

The Mira M-3 handheld Raman spectrometer from Metrohm USA.For its part, Rigaku Analytical Devices has developed a handheld Raman analyzer that is fully compliant with the regulations set last year by the European Pharmacopeia detailing acceptable wavelength shifts and associated tolerances for benchtop and handheld Raman instruments for pharmaceutical applications. The Progeny™ 1064nm handheld Raman analyzer successfully overcomes sample- induced fluorescence interference with the use of a unique 1064nm excitation laser. This feature also enables measurements to be taken through packaging. Bree Allen, general manager and vice president of the molecular business for Rigaku Analytical Devices, commented, “Progeny represents the cutting edge of handheld Raman technology, helping customers to achieve leaner manufacturing processes and lower costs per analysis without compromising quality, and now is a great time to upgrade outdated Raman systems to achieve a streamlined workflow.”

The Progeny™ 1064nm handheld Raman analyzer from Rigaku Analytical Devices.For those working outside the lab, handheld devices provide the opportunity to bring some of the lab with you. As they continue to advance, field instruments are becoming increasingly useful additions to the scientist’s toolkit.