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Powerful Mass Spectrometer Opens New Vistas for Scientists

Unique capability enables researchers to identify molecules involved in processes related to biology, environment, and energy

by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
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microbes in soilAmong the projects that scientists are tackling with the 21T: Gaining a better understanding of how microbes in soil affect the carbon cycle.Image Courtesy of Pacific Northwest National LaboratoryRICHLAND, Wash. – Scientists worldwide now have access to a powerful new resource at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, a Department of Energy Office of Science user facility at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, to help them address pressing science challenges related to the environment, biology and energy.

The new 21 Tesla Ultra-High-Resolution Mass Spectrometer, or the 21T for short, allows scientists to analyze and separate atoms and molecules according to their size and molecular structure with a clarity and precision well beyond conventional mass spectrometers.

Officials from EMSL, PNNL, DOE's Office of Science, DOE's Pacific Northwest Site Office, elected officials and scientists are gathering this week to celebrate the science that will be made possible by the 21T, which is available for use by scientists around the world. The topics scientists are already exploring with the instrument include:

  • Understanding how fungi break down rugged plant materials more effectively than nearly anything humans can produce economically. The question is at the heart of efforts to create new fuels and products from biological materials that contain a tough natural material known as lignocellulose.
  • How climate change affects carbon in soil and vice versa. The fate of the carbon beneath our feet—a huge reservoir of potential greenhouse gases—is intertwined with the future of our planet's climate.
  • How particles of pollution interact with naturally occurring particles in our atmosphere, affecting how sunlight is deflected from Earth or absorbed by the atmosphere.

A mass spectrometer with the power of the 21T gives scientists the ability to see very specific products of molecular reactions at the finest scale possible. With the 21T, researchers can distinguish molecular compounds that differ by almost unimaginably small nuances and precisely identify the molecules involved in very complex reactions. The instrument also allows scientists to study big intact proteins while preserving their biological function, and to study the interactions among proteins more readily.

With current projects, for example, scientists are able to analyze the activities of many microbes in the soil simultaneously and study a complex mix of substances under conditions closer to actual atmospheric conditions.

21 Tesla Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance Mass SpectrometerThe 21T–the 21 Tesla Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance Mass Spectrometer – at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at PNNL.Image Courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory"The 21T allows scientists to nail the identity of a particular molecule more precisely than other technologies," said David Koppenaal, chief technology officer for EMSL and one of the scientists who first conceived of the 21T to study molecular processes about a decade ago.

"For instance, we've seen examples where a conventional mass spectrometer indicates that there is one compound of interest in a chemical reaction, but the 21T showed that there are actually four or five molecules involved. This is crucial information."

The instrument's formal name is the 21 Tesla Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance Mass Spectrometer, also known as an ultra-high-resolution MS system. At the heart of the 25-ton instrument sits one of the world's largest magnets, a 21 Tesla magnet made by Agilent Technologies.

The PNNL community was invited to the event  on Thursday, April 14, 2016, to celebrate the 21T. The formal program included remarks from several visiting officials and PNNL scientists, introduction of the 21T team, and a laboratory tour and demonstration of the instrument.

Creation of the 21T and development of the scientific expertise to allow researchers to use it to maximum effect has been funded by the Department of Energy Office of Science. A similar instrument, funded by the National Science Foundation, is available to scientists at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, Fla.