Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business
Pipette dispensing droplet into a tube
iStock, deliormanli

Slash Sample Preparation Time with Microwave Digestion

Microwave digestion offers increased speed and consistency over other sample prep methods

Colm O'Regan, PhD

Colm O’Regan is a scientist and SEO copywriter for technology companies. He helps science and technology marketers drive traffic to their websites with engaging SEO-optimized content. Connect with him on...

ViewFull Profile.
Learn about ourEditorial Policies.
Register for free to listen to this article
Listen with Speechify

Sample preparation is the cornerstone of any lab operation, setting the stage for credible, accurate data, and subsequent analyses. 

Traditional sample prep methods often require high volumes of solvents and reagents. They can also lead to a range of results due to their manual nature, posing challenges in ensuring consistency. As a result, they can be labor-intensive and time consuming.

This article outlines the basics of microwave digestion as a sample prep method. It also explains the benefits this technique brings to the lab, and why lab managers should consider it going forward. 

The need for microwave digestion

Consider the classic process of hot plate digestion.

Here, samples are painstakingly heated over time with the continual addition of acids. The downside of this method is it can result in airborne contamination and poor volatile compound recovery. Such factors can be frustrating, as they add a level of unpredictability to the subsequent stages of analysis. Airborne contamination can also pose serious health risks. Microwave digestion addresses these challenges effectively, making it a compelling alternative for many labs.

Understanding microwave digestion

Microwave digestion offers numerous benefits over other sample preparation techniques. Even though it has existed for a number of years now, research groups are only just starting to realize its benefits for sample preparation in the lab.

Traditional techniques such as hot plate digestion work via conductive heating, in which heat must pass through the walls of the vessel before reaching the sample. This process may be slow and inconsistent, as the speed at which the sample heats depends upon the thermal conductivity of the vessel.

Essentially, microwave digestion is a process that uses microwave energy to heat samples in a closed-vessel system. The process is relatively simple: First, the user adds a known amount of sample material to a digestion vessel. They then pour in a concentrated acid, such as hydrogen peroxide or hydrochloric acid, seal the vessel, and start applying microwave energy. The sealed vessels achieve very high pressures as they heat up, similar to a pressure cooker. This pressure pushes the temperature of the vessel beyond the acid’s boiling point, increasing acid’s oxidative potential and breaking down the sample material faster. As a result, samples are heated faster than in methods based of conductive heating—a full digestion can be completed in as few as 30 minutes, while conductive heating methods can take several hours or days.

A full digestion can be completed in as few as 30 minutes, while conductive heating methods can take several hours or days.

Along with faster digestion times, other benefits include increased sample throughput, more consistent digestion, and enhanced safety features. 

Increased sample throughput

Sample throughput with microwave digestion is better than other methods by virtue of its quicker digestion times. Furthermore, microwave digestion systems are designed to handle multiple samples simultaneously. This is quite different from traditional methods, where usually one sample is processed at a time. The ability to process multiple samples at once substantially increases the lab’s sample throughput. Simply put, more samples processed equals more data generated in the same amount of time.

Consistent and complete digestion

A challenge with traditional methods is ensuring that each sample is treated identically. With microwave digestion, uniform heating in a closed vessel system provides consistent and complete digestion, ensuring reproducibility and reliability as well as protecting product quality. Whether you’re processing 10 samples or a hundred, each one undergoes the same exact treatment.

Enhanced safety features

Safety is paramount in any lab environment. Microwave digestion brings enhanced safety features due to its closed-vessel system. The containment minimizes the risk of contamination. It also minimizes the risk of exposure to hazardous chemicals, fostering a safer work environment. There’s no open flame or hot surfaces, further reducing the risk of accidents.

Justifying the cost of a microwave digester

Undeniably, the upfront cost of a microwave digestion system can be higher than traditional apparatus like hot plates or reflux systems. It’s akin to comparing the price of a high-end, multifunctional kitchen appliance to that of a simple stove. But let’s look at it from a long-term perspective.

Microwave digestion systems significantly reduce the consumption of expensive reagents and solvents. The savings from this reduction, though seemingly small on a per-sample basis, accumulate over time and can lead to a substantial decrease in operating costs.

Moreover, microwave digestion enables you to process multiple samples simultaneously, enhancing productivity. Suppose in your lab, you process hundreds of samples weekly. With microwave digestion, you could essentially double or triple your throughput without requiring additional personnel or extending working hours. More productivity within the same timeframe equates to more data, more results, and ultimately, more value created.

Why you should consider microwave digestion

As lab managers or research scientists, embracing change and innovation in your methodologies can be the key to unlocking new levels of productivity. Microwave digestion presents an exciting leap in this direction. It’s faster, more efficient, safer, and offers an environmentally friendly alternative to other methods. While the upfront investment and learning curve may appear as initial challenges, the long-term benefits are too compelling to overlook. 

Consider the prospect of transforming your laboratory into a more efficient, safer, and greener space—that’s the potential offered by microwave digestion.