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Measurement for the Masses

One trend evident in science generally, and for laboratories in particular, is the desire to do things faster, more reliably and economically, at a higher level of hardware and method robustness, and all with a less-specialized workforce. This is especially true of mass spectrometry, where users no longer need a Ph.D. to operate MS systems.

Angelo DePalma, PhD

Angelo DePalma is a freelance writer living in Newton, New Jersey. You can reach him at

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One trend evident in science generally, and for laboratories in particular, is the desire to do things faster, more reliably and economically, at a higher level of hardware and method robustness, and all with a less-specialized workforce.

“Years ago, MS operators had post-graduate degrees in spectrometry and significant experience,” comments Andrew Tyler, field technical sales leader for mass spectrometry at PerkinElmer (Waltham, MA). “Users had to be jacks of many trades, with knowledge of chemistry, electronics, and mechanical repairs.”

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Tom Szarzynski, director for North American service at AB Sciex (Framingham, MA), recalls tuning parameters set by hand-turned knobs, with settings marked in pencil. Walk-up operation was strictly forbidden. “Operators didn’t let you near the instrument,” Szarzynski recalls. Those days and their legacy are mostly gone, the only exceptions being university research and some very high-end instruments.

LC/MS/MS System / TripleTOF™ 4600 / AB SCIEX / As MS instrumentation became more modular, reliable, smaller, and less expensive, as applications became more complex, and as the user base evolved from experts to generalist scientists, the role of service and support changed. Users now are more likely to be technicians than Ph.D.s, a sign of the times for the analytical instrument industry.

Tyler views instrumental analysis as consisting of three components: the sample’s metadata, the analysis, and post-experimental data. Integrating and balancing these three components is critical for success.

Metadata incorporates data on sample origin, who generated it, and the operations it has undergone. Software and user interface, which facilitate data capture, must be straightforward and accessible. One could envision mass spectrometers becoming black boxes—the sample goes in, the MS does its thing, and data emerges appropriately tagged. The final component involves getting the data back to the person who requested the experiment in a form suitable for report generation, archiving, sharing, and annotation.

GC-MS / GCMS-TQ8030 / Shimadzu / As MS gains in popularity, users discover and develop more applications and methods. Tyler calls this “good news for vendors” because it expands their instruments’ application base. “It’s also a challenge to support applications that people need within the context of maintaining the balance between metadata, analysis, and data handling. What the instrument does with the data, how it’s distributed, and how it’s retained is as much a challenge as the analytical part. If you can’t meet the client’s expectations in that third phase, nobody is going to buy your instrument.”

Employing MS as a chromatography detector has been the most significant factor in the acceptance of MS in industries and applications where MS had not traditionally played. The second driver has been the simplification of MS, chromatography instrumentation, and systems combining both techniques. Instrumentation has become easier to use, and user interfaces more accessible, which has further popularized MS in both stand-alone and detector modes. “Walk-up” or open-access operation, while not yet universal, is gradually becoming the norm for many applications. Whether the disappearance of specialist- experts has fueled these trends or the other way around is difficult to say.

TOF Mass Spectrometer / BenchTOF-dx™ / ALMSCO / The democratization of MS, and its adoption as a detector for GC-LC, would not be possible without computerization and the instrumentation’s shrinking footprint. Thirty years ago, computers were uncommon and less powerful than today’s calculators are, and mass spectrometers sprawled across an entire room. Since instruments were rare, it took days to get data back.

One aspect of simplification has been the design of MS systems around markets, applications, and workflows rather than generic mass analysis. Workflowdedicated instrumentation relieves analysts of most of the burdens of method development and many validation tasks as well, while eliminating lab-tolab variability. Instead of requiring users to extract results from complex instrumentation, the burden is now on instrument designers to introduce spectrometers that resemble appliances in their operation more than instruments.