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Techniques & Tools Technology, Liquid Chromatography

Bringing Order to Chromatography

Congratulations on being recognized in three categories in this year’s 10 Top 10s Power List!

It’s a huge and very unexpected honor for me. But the category that gives me the most pleasure is “Mentors.” I’m proud that, despite my relatively young age, I already have a pedigree of former students that have been appointed into research or assistant professorship positions here in Belgium. Belgium is becoming a real hotspot for separation science!

How would you describe your mentoring style?

I try to find a balance between freedom and guidance. I may have the advantage of experience, but I like it when students are not afraid of getting into a discussion with me – if I’m wrong, I’m more than happy to be told so! I’m also not afraid of hard work – I’m always willing to roll up my sleeves and set a good example.

Why do you think you feature in the Leaders category?

I like to dream and so some people might see me as a visionary – someone who can show the way. Recently, I was offered a couple of prestigious posts – Editor of Analytical Chemistry and a place on the HPLC meeting’s permanent scientific committee – which I imagine has also raised my profile.

And what do you dream of?

A perfectly ordered chromatographic column – the dream of every chromatographer (I think)! The dream is now materializing within PharmaFluidics, a recently established company that brings together people who believe in radical new production methods for columns. It currently works for nano and capillary LC, but we’re only at the beginning of the revolution; if we push the technology further, we will be able to apply it to larger formats and analytical-scale chromatography. I also dream of being able to come up with a definitive theory for chromatography, but there’s still a long way to go – it is a dream after all!

You started off in engineering…

I always liked challenges – and I complemented my studies with competitive sports. At the time, the two most challenging academic options were medicine and engineering. I can’t stand the sight of blood, so I went for engineering. A few chemical engineers have contributed to separation science, van Deemter and Giddings, for example. It’s a field where chemists and engineers can work together – and make exciting things happen.

My PhD focused on mixing in a special type of fermenter, consisting of a cylinder rotating inside another cylindrical device. I had to write a final chapter about application in industry, which posed a problem – scaling up the reactor was very difficult, so realistically it had no future as a fermenter. I spent a lot of time trying to find another process where such a reactor could be of use, and eventually came across chromatography. I realized that if I could break the cylinders open, I would still have the same type of flow propagation – where one surface drags fluid past another surface – and I came upon the idea of shear-driven chromatography. Sure, the technique was limited, but it brought me into contact with separation science, where I was very rapidly seduced by the beauty of a chromatogram. The rest is history.

What is your proudest achievement?

The pillar array column (PAC) – this could be the beginning of a revolution. And we were among the first to operate narrow-bore HPLC columns at very high pressures (2,600 bar), using a coupled column system to prevent viscous heating.

You seem to like working at the limit!

The attitude may stem from my background as an athlete – I always want to break records! On the experimental side, I’m also proud of a trick we developed to plug the pores of particles so that we can investigate or separate the broadening process that occurs outside particles, as well as what’s happening inside. On the theoretical side, I’m very proud of the kinetic plot methods we developed to compare chromatographic systems with different geometries, sizes and structures – all with the same unit currency of time versus resolution.

Any disappointments?

The biggest disappointments came from the few occasions where we had ideas stolen or hijacked during the review process. It affected the careers of some of the best people in my group and that was very frustrating. Unfortunately, there was nothing we could do – there are some powers that you cannot break. Now that I am an Editor  myself, I try to be fair and objective.

You’ve had a tough time lately – has that affected your drive?

Suffering a heart attack certainly made me aware that life can end very abruptly. At first, chromatography was the last thing on my mind. But gradually, I got “the taste” back – I realized that to be happy, I need to keep my brain busy. But although working hard keeps me sane, it’s important to find a balance between work and home life. So now I only work 50 hours a week (and mostly at home), rather than 80!

Where is separation science headed?

Maybe for the field of separation science we could paraphrase the Olympic motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius” – faster, higher, stronger – and aim for “Citius, Altius, Sensitivius” – faster, higher (resolution), and more sensitive. The evolution in these three factors has been tremendous over the past decade, and there’s no reason why this trend shouldn’t continue over the next 10 years and beyond.

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About the Author
Gert Desmet

Gert Desmet is Professor of Chemical Engineering at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium.

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