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Techniques & Tools Gas Chromatography, Liquid Chromatography

GC×GC Game Changer

Congratulations on winning the 2017 GC×GC Lifetime Achievement Award – what achievement are you most proud of?

I hope that the biggest achievement is still to come! But I’m proud that I have been able to steer the discussion in new directions. For example, when my group published work on stop-flow GC×GC – de-coupling the flow between the first and second column to improve resolution – it was met with a lot of skepticism. Back then, it was considered almost a blasphemy to say that you could stop the flow in the first columns and not ruin the separation due to excessive band broadening. Today, intermittent stopping of the flow in the first dimension is part and parcel of flow modulators. A total transfer valve-based modulator based on this principle has also been described. I would like to believe that our research helped overcome the preconceptions that prevented fellow scientists from exploring this idea in the past.

We developed one of the first modulators with no moving parts, and we have now developed a consumable-free modulator, which I believe could be a real step forward. The field settled on cryogenic modulation for GC×GC almost 20 years ago, but I believe there are better solutions out there.

How did you get interested in GC×GC?

It started with a project on non-discriminating pyrolysis in the mid-1990s with Juergen Poerschmann at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany. He believed that the pyrolysis products we saw in the GC were only part of the story – many of the heavier analytes never reach the GC column. His idea was to create a pyrolysis device that would allow all analytes to enter the column. The device I built was essentially a piece of stainless steel tubing, which we zapped with a pulse from a capacitive discharge power supply to heat it rapidly. When the first papers on GC×GC came out, I could see a clear application to our work.

It was when the first cryogenic modulators were developed that it all clicked – we could couple cryogenic cooling with capacitive discharge heating, so that there are no moving parts. That was the inspiration for our first modulators, which we developed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It was an uphill battle at times, but ultimately it allowed us to do really cool things, and it generated a great deal of excitement.

How has your research changed over time?

We still explore new approaches to modulation, but have been broadening our horizons. As GC×GC reaches a wider audience, we are seeing the re-emergence of LC×LC. It’s older than GC×GC – but it reaching the mainstream has been an uphill battle. Recently, I have been applying my GC×GC expertise to LC×LC, and I will be presenting some interesting ideas at ISCC in Fort Worth, Texas this year... Watch this space!

What challenges face GC×GC in the next decade?

The next big step is to move the technology into routine use. I’d like to see the technique available to every lab, without having to hire a PhD who specializes in the field. You should be able use a modulator with any existing instrument – just hook up your columns and you’re good to go.

How can we achieve that?

Cost is a huge obstacle; right now, you can buy two GC instruments for the price of one modulator – the sums simply don’t add up for most labs. We also have to simplify the technology. And the need to haul liquid nitrogen to the lab every day is a deal breaker for many people.

We can only get there if the field has support from major instrument manufacturers. Unfortunately, GC×GC is essentially a side project for many of the bigger companies, and smaller companies lack the deep pockets needed to fund development. The field needs a champion on the vendor side.

You teach at both graduate and undergraduate level – what makes a good teacher?

A good teacher has to love not only the process of teaching but also the topic itself. I love teaching analytical chemistry and I think my students pick up on that. I try to develop their appreciation for what analytical chemistry can do. It is too often relegated in people’s minds to a service role. But analytical chemistry in itself is a magnificent field; no chemical advance would be possible without the involvement of analytical chemistry. I tell them that being able to do the calculations is not enough – a good analytical chemist is open to new ideas and can synthesize knowledge from many areas to come up with a solution to the problem at hand. 

It’s wonderful to see their enthusiasm grow. Some of my best graduate students have been those I infected with the analytical chemistry bug during their undergraduate degree.

What motivates you?

I like the technology, it’s as simple as that! GC×GC is very powerful – and it’s fun to work with. People think it’s complicated, and though it’s clearly more complex than running a single GC, you get so much more information. I believe that the future is bright for the field, and that the day will come when GC×GC is in widespread use for routine analysis.

How do you define success?

For me, success is contributing to the community. You can spend years in the lab doing interesting work, but if there is no practical benefit, to me, that’s not success. That’s why I truly appreciate receiving the GC×GC Lifetime Achievement Award, because it acknowledges that I’m not just doing research for the sake of research, but helping to move the field forward.

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About the Author
Tadeusz Górecki

Tadeusz Górecki, Professor, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

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