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Business & Education Gas Chromatography, Mass Spectrometry

The Principle of the Thing

Here’s a seemingly straightforward question for you. If pressed, could you explain how GC and MS technologies operate on a fundamental level? Struggling? You’re not the only one. The analytical community is facing a crisis in that increasing numbers of analysts no longer understand the basic principles underpinning our work. The consequences will be dire: stifled progress and questions raised regarding data validity.

What should the community do to address this problem? In the 1940s and 1950s, GC and MS were only just beginning to emerge as commercially viable instruments and the language describing their operation was simplistic. A few years ago, I worked on a project to build a historical timeline for GC and MS measurement of polychlorinated biphenyls in the environment. What began as a dauting task soon became a passion, as I morphed from analytical chemist to history detective; I wanted to know not just how the technology evolved, but why.

Reading through the earliest papers was enlightening – I learned a lot, and gained an appreciation for how far GC-MS and environmental analysis has come. One of my favorites is a paper from 1943, which states the following: “In general, a mass spectrometer is a device for sorting molecules. Before the molecules are sorted, they are given an electric charge, so that they can be forced to move by the combined action of electric and magnetic fields” (1). While this description might not capture the nuances of the sophisticated technology, it does introduce meaningful terms that most can understand. The objective, after all, was to educate. When ideas and concepts are introduced in a way that isn’t intimidating, they become easier to learn.

Unfortunately, the entry-level and repetitive nature of many analyst jobs leaves little time to devote to learning basic principles. What’s more, on the job training primarily consists of how to do said job – not how and why an approach works. I’ve been the recipient of enough technical service calls to know that many analysts have merely been taught how to make an instrument run, but are woefully unprepared for any problems that may arise. Learning fundamentals is left largely to the individual to pursue independently; few employers have the time or resources to devote to day-long seminars and immersed training opportunities.

Creating innovative training experiences that take into account the limited availability and resources of the average analyst might offer one solution, but who should take responsibility? In the past, scientific vendors were largely responsible for educating their customers – it was all part of the service.  

The first handbook on vapor fractometry (GC) was published in 1955 and freely distributed by the vendor (2). The book is easy to read, and clearly focused on education rather than number of sales. Today’s approaches are radically different, with many vendors preferring flashy marketing and advertisement over educational value. Maybe it’s time to once again prioritize education, and how we communicate to the broader scientific community. Raising the average user’s knowledge has far-reaching benefits, and might just underpin the next technological leap forward.  

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  1. H Washburn et al., “Mass spectrometer as analytical tool”, Ind. Eng. Chem. Anal. Ed., 9, 541 (1943). DOI: 10.1021/i560121a001
  2. H Hausdorff., “Vapor Fractometry (Gas Chromatography) a powerful new tool in chemical analysis,” `The Perkin-Elmer Corporation: 1955.
About the Author
Michelle Misselwitz

Environmental Chemist, Chemistry Matters, Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, USA

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