Mastering the Craft of Chromatography
Innovation in separation science continues apace, but a lack of skilled personnel with an understanding of the fundamentals will hold the field back
David McCalley | | 3 min read
Though chromatography has come a long way since I started my career, there are various difficulties that hinder the development of the subject. As the field stands at the beginning of 2024, the biggest challenge seems to be a lack of personnel who really understand the principles behind the techniques. Many can be classified as “application scientists” who follow set methods and are more interested in the results than studying the techniques themselves. I think the effects of serious skill shortages in the fundamentals of the subject have been avoided so far because a vigorous handful of academics and industrialists have been able to keep the research and development flag flying. But it’s clear that the number of skilled personnel decreases year by year as they retire and are not replaced. Some are made redundant by outsourcing in industry. Outsourcing may have short term financial benefits to an organization, but once important skills are lost, a downward spiral can take effect.
In the UK where I am based, some recruitment from continental Europe or further afield has partially plugged the skills gap, but unfortunately other countries seem to have similar problems with the availability of people who are accomplished in the fundamentals. Research and development, even on a modest scale, are vital to the health of a subject area – not only to push forward the boundaries, but also in broadening experience by research-informed teaching and learning.
Despite challenging times, there are various exciting trends emerging in the field. Take the development of pillar array columns by Gert Desmet and colleagues in Brussels; higher column efficiency can be obtained with a regular structure of pillar arrays, which avoids many of the problems associated with preparation, packing, and performance of conventional columns. This is interesting stuff – there’s plenty more to be discovered and challenges to solve; for example, problems occur when increasing the diameter of these new columns to match those commonly found in particulate columns.
Multidimensional chromatography – and its promise of increasingly higher resolution of complex samples – offers another vigorous area of research. But again, further development and successful implementation of this technology will depend on the availability – or training – of highly skilled personnel. It is possible that candidates for research training in chromatography with qualifications in disciplines other than pure chemistry may provide a larger recruitment pool. Many such personnel with a background in pharma, clinical, environmental, or forensic science already work with chromatography applications, but could be encouraged to take up more fundamental studies.
Perhaps if we – as a collective – exude sufficient infectious enthusiasm, we can use these methods to attract new talent. I hope so. We have not solved all the problems in chromatography, even though it is a “mature” technique – nor have we met all the needs of society. But therein lies the beauty of analytical science: exciting discoveries and much-needed progress are there for the next generation of chromatographers to make. Especially those who are ready, willing and able to embrace the fundamentals of the subject!
Professor, Bioanalytical Science University of the West of England, Bristol, UK