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Evolution of Gas Chromatography

Gas chromatography (GC) dates back to the first experiments of Mikhail Tsvet separating plant pigments using paper chromatography in 1903

by John Buie

While the history of gas chromatography (GC) dates back to the first experiments of Mikhail Tsvet separating plant pigments using paper chromatography in 1903 to Schuftan & Eucken introducing vapor as the mobile phase in the 1930s, the evolution of modern GC systems is a very competitive race to resolution and usability. Lets start with the first instruments introduced more than 50 years ago that somewhat resemble the GC systems used in labs today.



The lab bench was populated with analytical instruments that only skilled scientists could operate. PerkinElmer set out to make GC more accessible to researchers by introducing their first gas chromatograph, the Model 154 Vapor Fractometer. This was the first ever gas chromatograph to use an oven to adjust the column temperature, a flash vaporizer and a syringe injection.


GOW-MAC, whose roots date back to developing thermal conductivity detectors (TCDs) in 1935 to measure the carbon dioxide content of exhaust gas for customers such as the U.S. Navy during World War II, developed a revolutionary new technique named gas chromatography.



Researchers were finding new applications for temperature-programmable instruments. In response, PerkinElmer developed the Model 222, which attached to the 154 Vapor Fractometer via its detector. The Model 222 is the first gas chromatograph with a resistance-heated packed column, which removed the delta between set and actual column temperatures.


In Germany, PerkinElmer’s affiliate was building the world’s first modular gas chromatograph. The new PerkinElmer Model F-6 was a building block system that allowed one to choose from multiple detector combinations and isothermal or programmed temperature operation.


The Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy (Pittcon) to this day remains the most important industry trade show in the scientific industry, and over 30 years ago that held true as well. There was no better forum for PerkinElmer to release its first flagship gas chromatograph, the Model 900, which continued to dominate the GC market for the next decade. The Model 900 introduced several improvements, including the ability to use two columns and multiple detectors, setting a new bar in flexibility and sophistication.


Seeing a need in the research arena for a lower priced, easier-to-use gas chromatograph, GOW-MAC launched its own line, beginning with their Model 69-100.



Hewlett-Packard (HP), introduced its first gas chromatograph, the HP 5830, which was also the first microprocessor-controlled analytical instrument ever made.


The XII Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria proved to be the testing ground for the newest gas chromatograph in the Perkin- Elmer line, one that at an affordable price could rapidly perform drug screening for routine testing of athletes. The Model 3920 delivered, making it one of their most successful instruments.

Evolving their existing gas chromatograph with mass spectrophotometer (MS) detection capability, HP introduced the very first benchtop GC/MS system—the HP 5990.


Responding to the need for simplified chemical analysis and more compounds to be analyzed, HP developed fused silica capillary columns for gas chromatography.



Hearing of HP’s revolutionary use of fused silica capillary columns, Dr. S.R. Lipsky, an innovator in GC technology, sought suppliers of the new flexible tubing and released the “Black Knight,” the first mass-produced fused silica GC column through the Quadrex Corporation


Shimadzu launched the GC-8A, which changed GC system design by offering a smaller, compact size and a solid, die-cast frame.


To this day, the all time best-selling GC is the HP 5890, released 25 years ago. It’s still one of the most active instruments in equipment marketplaces—just search “HP 5890” on


The new generation of GC system hardware made new applications, which were performed at high temperatures, available to researchers. This is when Quadrex introduced the first aluminum-covered silica columns to tolerate these high temperatures.


With the evolution of the GC system and new software, the demand for a broader range of application-focused detectors grew. GOW-MAC patented the Discharge Ionization Detector (DID) and revolutionized the gas industry. This universal, non-radioactive detector capable of performing trace gas impurity analysis in the ppb range quickly became an industry standard.

Making the gas chromatograph easier to control required more advanced software with better user interfaces. HP released another best seller, the ChemStation software for both GC and HPLC.



Building on an already impressive platform, HP released the 6890 series of gas chromatographs, setting a new standard for the next generation of GC systems.


With the new 6890 platform in the field for a year, the next generation of GC/MS configurations was not far behind. HP introduced the 5973 GC/MSD.



With ease of use still being a drawback to GC systems, PerkinElmer revamped its user interface and introduced the first touch-screen display based graphical user interface to its Clarus 500 gas chromatograph and GC/MS lines.


The first X-ray diagnostic system equipped with a direct conversion flat panel detector (FPD) is launched by Shimadzu with the release of the GC-2014.

With 17 associated patents behind the Varian 4000 GC/MS, a breakthrough in GC flexibility now becomes available to researchers. The system allows users to choose from three separate ionization configurations to increase application-specific performance. The three configurations include Internal Ionization, External Ionization and Hybrid Chemical Ionization, which allow users to select a suitable chemical ionization (CI) reagent and separate specific reagent ion for reaction with sample molecules.


After being spun off from its parent company, HP, newly named Agilent Technologies, released the 7890A GC. This new model incorporates capillary flow technology.

The Future of Gas Chromatographs

Masanao Furukawa of Shimadzu’s MS/GC business unit made these comments regarding the future of the gas chromatograph: “By using heart-cut technology to view compounds in even more detail, a secondary column with different characteristics is used to conduct a more detailed analysis, and this type of method is referred to as multidimensional GC.” He also added, “It can be expected that GC’s will become more like sensor technology as higher speeds are achieved.” GC manufacturers are confident that gas chromatography will continue to play an ever more important role in labs as the equipment continues to evolve to meet the demands of more challenging applications, as well as increasing efficiency in daily analysis.