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Dr. Susan Rae Anderson on Trends in GC

Dr. Susan Rae Anderson is an independent consultant in analytical chemistry at S.R. Anderson Consulting (formerly Olin Corporation).

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She received a BS in analytical chemistry from California University of Pennsylvania, and both a Master of Science and a PhD in physical chemistry from the University of Cincinnati. She has worked in an R & D or technical support environment for a broad range of industries, including polymer, intermediate chemical, specialty chemicals, cosmetic chemistry, and inorganic chemicals. She has also served as a corporate liaison between industry and various advocacy organizations, such as the Textile Research Institute (TRI) headquartered in Princeton and the Chlorine Institute based in Arlington, VA. Dr. Anderson has served on the NSF/ANSI Standard 60 for Drinking Water since 2007 and the NSF/ANSI Standard 416 Sustainability Committee since 2012.

Q: Can you tell me a bit about your background with gas chromatography (GC)?

A: I started in gas chromatography during an internship in 1987. Most of my early work with GC was with either the FID [flame ionization detector] or MS [mass spectrometry] detectors. I have done method development and validation on GCs since then in various industrial settings.

Q: What key changes or trends have you seen in GC over the past few years?

A: Well, I remember strip chart recorders and packing my own column. I am enamored with the computer technology and the constant improvements to software programs. The columns—both packed and capillary—are more robust than in the past. The variety of phases, film thicknesses, diameters, and other column properties enable laboratories to analyze just about any sample as long as the analyte in question can be volatilized. Detector capabilities have also improved, allowing lower detection limits.

Q: What have those changes meant for labs?

A: Data can be collected more rapidly and reliably. Software programs make it difficult to “doctor” data and also make the analytical instrumentation user-friendly. This means that lab technicians don’t need as much education to run routine analyses. This helps industrial and contract laboratories operate more profitably. Column technology has increased the types of analyses. The variety of analytes possible has also increased. Better detectors and new detectors have broadened the capability of laboratories.

Q: What are the most common challenges your clients face when it comes to GC?

A: My clients generally call me when they have new analytes they must find or new types of samples. Generally, they are looking for someone to help determine the best analytical method for their sample and to do the method development and validation of the new method. In part, the improvement in GC technology has allowed labs to hire less-experienced personnel; therefore, method development is frequently beyond their current abilities. It is less expensive to hire a consultant than to have a PhD or a chemist with methods development experience on staff.

Q: What are some of the ways they can deal with those challenges?

A: Other than having a methods development chemist on staff, calling in a consultant is a wise option. Depending on the sample and the analyte(s), there are many parameters to consider. You want to think about how you are going to get the analyte(s) out of your sample, which can mean various types of extraction methods. You want to research the polarity, boiling points, and molecular weights of the analytes. This information will assist in proper column selection and help with GC parameters. In short, gather as much information about your sample and what you need to determine in your sample as possible.

Q: What advice would you have for labs that are just getting into GC?

A: If possible, talk to other labs that are doing the same type of work as you. Do literature searches to see if methodology already exists. Good resources are ASTM and the EPA [US Environmental Protection Agency]. Instrument and column manufacturers also have done much of the work and will have technical bulletins on their websites. Many laboratories think GC is all-encompassing, especially GC-MS. It is not; there are samples that will require some other type of methodology. Make sure you are selecting an instrument that is appropriate for your sample.

Q: For labs that are in the process of buying a new GC, what are the most important things they should consider before making a decision?

A: Arrange with the instrument manufacturer for a demonstration of the instrument with your samples. I would recommend sending your samples to various manufacturers. Also, ask the sales representative to arrange a meeting with the tech service representative in your area. Most of the instruments are comparable as far as capability is concerned, but customer support can vary greatly. You should also do a bit of research on your particular needs. There are many resources where you can find methodology that solves your analytical issue.

Q: What key trends do you expect to see in GC going forward?

A: That is a good question. I would expect continued improvements in column technologies and detector capabilities. Data collection devices—I hate to refer to them as computers (IT departments then want control and that is almost always a disaster)—are continually improving. I remember a GCMS that I used that had a total of 70K in two hard drives that took up the same amount of space as a modern GC-FID. You can now get micro-disks that are about the size of my thumbnail with 128G. I would imagine that with LIMS systems and memory capabilities, it won’t be long before paper is completely out of the labs.

Q: Do you have anything else you want to add?

A: Something that we haven’t touched on that is probably the most critical component of any analysis, regardless of instrumentation, is the sample itself. Sample collection is the most important part of any chemical analysis, in my opinion, followed by the actual sample preparation. If the sample is not representative of what you are analyzing, your results will be meaningless. If sample preparation techniques are faulty or inconsistent, your results will be meaningless. For this reason, I believe sample collection needs to be done by the people who best understand the process. Proper training in sample collection must be done to ensure sample integrity. This can mean that in an industrial situation, the process operators rather than lab personnel will be taking the samples.

The other thing we haven’t mentioned is safety. I have seen many laboratories become a bit lackadaisical because smaller quantities of chemicals are used now than in the past. Instrumentation seems to give lab personnel a false sense of security when it comes to safety. I have seen unnecessary injuries as a result. It doesn’t take much of certain chemicals to blind an eye or cause respiratory distress. Please, everyone, work safely. No shortcut, no job, is worth your health.