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Well in Hand

Advances in miniaturization and microfabrication have resulted in handheld and portable instruments that are increasingly rapid and reliable.

Trevor Henderson, PhD

Trevor Henderson BSc (HK), MSc, PhD (c), is the creative services director at Lab Manager.  He has more than two decades of experience in the fields of scientific...

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Developments in Field Instrumentation

For a variety of applications, the ability to quickly and precisely detect various elements and compounds at the sample source is essential. Such applications include environmental monitoring, forensic identification, military operations, and drug detection. Industrial applications, including identification of specific chemicals and carcinogens in a variety of durable goods from children’s toys to plumbing supplies, require frequent screening to avoid possible risks to human health. Further, the increasing globalization of our food supply has led to the need for portable instrumentation to quickly, accurately, and affordably detect pesticides, veterinary drugs, and adulterants at all points in the supply chain.

Portable GC/MS offers fast and accurate analytical results for field workers.Source: Torion Technologies Inc.For maximum effectiveness, portable analytical instrumentation must be lightweight, fast, and durable, with simple and intuitive interfaces. While portable units often lack the dynamic range, sampling capabilities, and overall selectivity and sensitivity of their benchtop counterparts, recent advances in miniaturization and microfabrication have resulted in handheld and portable instruments that are increasingly rapid and reliable.

Health, safety, and emergency response

When assessing emergency exposure situations, first responders often have limited knowledge of the situation, and therefore require rapid assessments to respond quickly and appropriately. Historically, when a suspected exposure occurred, field analysts would collect samples and send them to a central lab for analysis, and perhaps days later the lab would return the results. With portable on-site analysis, first responders can make actionable decisions and share results in near-real time in an effort to mitigate potential risks and exposures.

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For many field analysts, the top analytical tool has been, and continues to be, the gas chromatograph (GC). When coupled with mass spectroscopy (MS), the ability to detect, identify, and quantitate potential toxic threats in near-real time offers considerable benefits, as any health and safety concerns can be addressed immediately.

TRIDION®-9 fully portable GC/MS.Source: Torion Technologies Inc.Among the industry leaders in portable GC/MS technology is Torion Technologies Inc. (American Fork, UT). Torion boasts the world’s smallest and most portable capillary gas chromatograph— toroidal ion trap mass spectrometer in its TRIDION®-9 fully portable GC-MS. Designed to deliver fast results (typically in less than five minutes) and weighing in at less than 32 pounds, it is both battery and line operable, with an onboard helium GC carrier gas cartridge.

Although not new to the market, the TRIDION®-9 has undergone several recent improvements to both the hardware and software designed to improve speed, reliability, and sensitivity. Further, new sampling devices such as the CUSTODION™-NT (needle trap) for quantitative air sampling, and the SPS™-3 Sample Prep Station for sample desorption and transfer, have been added to complete the suite of available tools.

Infrared and Raman

Over the past decades, the market for infrared and Raman spectrometry has grown in response to increased demand for improved border security and threat assessment. These devices have been shown to be infinitely useful for the detection of a variety of chemicals in industrial, security, and military applications.

Agilent Technologies 4500 series portable FTIR.Source: Agilent Technologies.Fourier transformation infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy offers several advantages for field technicians: rapid results (typically in seconds); mechanical simplicity, which offers little possibility of mechanical failure; and internal calibration, which means it never needs to be calibrated by the user. These advantages, in combination with several others, make this tool an invaluable resource for obtaining field results that are both accurate and reproducible.

Portable FTIR spectrometers are often the go-to devices for on-site analysis of various incoming materials and outgoing finished products in many industrial, chemical, and food industries. In many industries, the need to rapidly identify potential hazardous substances, including known carcinogens, is critical. Agilent Technologies (Santa Clara, CA) recently released a new portable FTIR package to rapidly identify polymers and measure total phthalates.

Phthalates represent a class of compounds present in PVC and have been implicated as both endocrine disruptors and carcinogens. The system can nondestructively determine the chemical composition of a polymer in seconds; if the identified polymer is PVC, the 4500 will accurately measure the amount of phthalate present.

Rigaku Raman Technologies Progeny handheld Raman analyzer.Source: Rikagu Raman Technology.“There is critical need to both identify polymers and rapidly screen them for banned or restricted chemicals,” according to Phil Binns, managing director of spectroscopy at Agilent. Agilent’s polymer package is one of many packages available for Agilent’s battery-powered 4500 FTIR spectrometry system.

An ideal complement to infrared absorption technologies is Raman scattering. Raman technologies offer the advantage of being able to accurately detect many unknown substances accurately, as well as being able to measure aqueous solutions and take measurements through transparent or semitransparent containers. Such technology is ideal for counterfeit screening, material identification, hazardous material detection, and threat defense.

Common materials that fluoresce often cause unwanted interference for Raman instruments; however, new devices such as Rigaku Raman Technologies’ (Wilmington, MA) Progeny handheld device elimates issues of fluorescence interference with the use of a 1064nm excitation laser and also allows the use of a handheld Raman to measure materials through colored bottles.

Merging technologies

For Thermo Fisher Scientific, customer demand for an instrument that combines both FTIR and Raman technologies has led to the release of the Thermo Scientific ™ Gemini™ Analyzer, the world’s first and only handheld integrated FTIR and Raman instrument.

“Leveraging ten years of customer feedback and the state of the art of what is available in technology today, we were able to create a powerful tool for handheld, field-based, chemical identification.” This according to Chris Langford, production manager for safety and security at Thermo Fisher Scientific (Tewkesbury, MA).

Thermo Scientific™ Gemini™ analyzer.Source: Thermo Fisher Scientific.The Gemini analyzer, designed with military and first-responder applications in mind, offers comprehensive and confirmatory results in a device that is lightweight, rugged, and easy to operate. To support field users, Thermo Scientific also offers comprehensive field support. According to Langford, Thermo Scientific’s reachback support allows 24/7 support from PhD chemists in situations where spectra are not in the database or require additional analysis. “In critical situations, analysis and response to reachback requests can be performed in less than an hour,” says Langford. “In addition, technicians can provide hardware and software support to field personnel.”

With a simple, intuitive interface and a comprehensive onboard library of over 16,000 common substances and the ability to add user libraries and custom spectra, the Gemini analyzer is well positioned to be an instrument of choice for many applications.

Getting better than lab results

Arguably, field instruments often lack the robustness and sensitivity of their laboratory counterparts. This, however, does not mean that the quality of field analysis cannot be as good as, or better than, that in the traditional laboratory.

Gemini™ analyzer represents the first and only combined FTIR and Raman analyzer.Source: Thermo Fisher Scientific.When assessing sources of potential error, the first consideration is often one of sample integrity. By analyzing a sample close to its source, one greatly minimizes the risk of sample contamination or degradation, damage during sample delivery, and issues surrounding chain of custody. Further, if an investigator suspects that there is an issue with the sample, or results are inconclusive, another sample can simply be taken without having to return to the field. The field investigator also has the opportunity to adjust the parameters immediately to ensure that good samples are obtained and results are of superior quality.

Having the ability to choose the appropriate methods and instruments to meet the requirements of the field experiment gives the operator the means to best meet the requirements of a specific site, an ability that is not often possible in the typical laboratory, where samples must simply fit into the regular workflow.

Field sampling also has the benefit of representative sample collection. Real-time results mean that you can focus on areas of interest, rather than collecting a large series of samples over a wide area—many of which may turn out to be unnecessary. By identifying an area of concern early, efforts can be focused on relevant samples, improving overall data quality and reducing time in the field.

The future of field science

Smartphone dongles provide point-of-care STD testing from finger prick whole blood in 15 minutes.Source: Samiksha Nayak for Columbia Engineering.In a society driven by the need for fast, accurate, and available data, field instrumentation will continue to find its way into the hands of a great number of individuals for a wide variety of purposes. We will continue to see innovation in instrumentation, whether it be in securing our food chain, protecting our nations, or securing our personal health and well-being. Beyond advancements in traditional markets, we are also seeing an increase in instrumentation coupled with consumer electronics.

As an example, earlier this year biomedical engineers at Columbia University developed a dongle, a piece of hardware that attaches to the headphone jack of iPhones and other smartphones, and in this case serves the purpose of a do-it-yourself STD test. This dongle contains a one-time-use cassette that screens blood for markers of HIV and syphilis using an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). According to Samuel K. Sia, associate professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia University, “Coupling microfluidics with recent advances in consumer electronics can make labbased diagnostics available to almost any population with access to smartphones.” Sia estimates the dongle will have a manufacturing cost of $34, much lower than the $18,450 that typical ELISA equipment runs. While security concerns remain over health-record confidentiality, such technologies will undoubtedly lead to a revolution of new “citizen scientists” able to collect, analyze, and share data with their smartphone.

Ocean Optics STS Spectrophotometer Development Kit offers new opportunities for research method development.Source: Ocean Optics.Field researchers can also look forward to instruments with increased flexibility and adaptability, such as the recent release of Ocean Optics’ (Dunedin, FL) STS (stimulus + transducer + signal) Developers Kit. This new set of sensing tools brings together its powerful STS spectrophotometer, a Raspberry Pi microcomputer, customizable software, and remarkable wireless capabilities. Allowing extremely flexible configurations and control via smartphone or tablet, the unit is lightweight enough to be drone-mounted, allowing remote sensing in areas not accessible by field personnel.

Through coupling with consumer electronics, we are beginning to see analytical technologies that were previously limited to the lab now in the hands of a new generation of citizen scientists. Armed with smartphone-driven devices, such individuals could yield vast amounts of previously unattainable research data. When this is combined with the introduction of new flexible, open-source platforms and instruments, we can expect to see the emergence of new and innovative applications as these devices become increasingly affordable and available.