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Techniques & Tools Gas Chromatography, Liquid Chromatography

The GC-MS Application Challenge

The Analytical Scientist, in collaboration with Axel Semrau, GL Sciences, LECO Corporation, and Restek, invited those working in the GC-MS space to submit their most impressive application notes for the chance to win some exciting prizes – all expenses paid facility or conference trips, consumables worth $3,000, and instrument discounts, to name but a few (click here for more details).

Our expert panel of judges – including Robert K. Nelson, James Harynuk, Susan Richardson, Hans-Gerd Janssen, Giorgia Purcaro, Erich Leitner, Jaap de Zeeuw, and Robert Trengove – have considered the entries and the results are in! Our winners across the following categories are:

  • Dmitry Koluntaev for Best Novel Application
  • Anika Lokker for Excellence in Chromatography
  • Flavio A. Franchina for Creative Use of Application Workflows, Sample Prep & Automation 
  • Katelynn Perrault – Special Recognition

We caught up with the winners to find out more about their work, the lessons learned, and thoughts on the future of GC-MS. 

Who’s Afraid of Picasso?
Best Novel Application: “Analytical approach to GC-MS determination of museum varnish compositions” 

“I always wanted to work with samples filled with history – and around a year ago, we were asked for assistance by restorers to analyze samples of varnish taken from two museum items – book covers and chest lids. It was very important to determine exactly what type of varnish had been originally used by the artist so that it could be properly removed – without damaging the drawings underneath. We agreed! It was a great opportunity to try our hand at such a field of research and use real historical samples for analysis.” – Dmitry Koluntaev

Getting to Grips with Prehistoric Adhesives
Excellence in Chromatography: “Breaking the secret of prehistoric stone tools design using multidimensional chromatography”

“A few years ago, a proof-of-concept study was conducted in my lab using HS-SPME-GC×GC-TOFMS to identify prehistoric adhesives. I started my PhD project with this technique, too. However, it soon became clear that HS-SPME is not sensitive enough to detect the VOCs of very old archaeological artifacts. Therefore, I started to look further into different HS techniques options, finding articles in which they compared HS-SPME with DHS. I discovered that DHS has a higher response and sensitivity. With this knowledge, we changed our system to use the potential of DHS and optimized the extraction. This change showcased the measurement of a real archeological artifact and highlighted the working benefits of DHS.” – Anika Lokker.

Creatively Controlling Pesticides
Creative Use of Application Workflows, Sample Prep & Automation: “Determination of phytosanitary products in surface waters and groundwaters by GC×GC-TOFMS”

“The idea popped into my mind when tutoring one of my students, who was working on his dissertation. At the time, he was working part time for one of the national environmental agency’s local labs, so I had the chance to hear about some of the analytical challenges they faced. I thought that developing a GC×GC-MS methodology for phytosanitary compounds could really be helpful, and that comparing it with its GC counterpart would be interesting – and a good learning exercise for the team, both in terms of theoretical and technical skill development.” – Flavio A. Franchina

Sandalwood in the Second Dimension 
Special Recognition: “Comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography analysis of commercial essential oils from different sandalwood species”

“Crowdsourcing ideas for method development can be valuable. For our study, a group of undergraduate students came up with ideas for optimizing our first dimension separation – a fun exercise to tackle together. I could also see this group approach being a valuable tool in R&D laboratories when meeting challenges in method development.” – Katelynn A. Perrault

The Killer GC-MS Application?

Dmitry Koluntaev: It's very difficult to imagine. I suppose such an application should be very simple in terms of sample preparation (maybe even fully automated), and should provide a comprehensive analysis of any object – whether it be a museum object or the analysis of biological or environmental objects.

For example, there are interesting studies with exhaled breath taking place in the world. I try to actively follow the publications and reports in this area.

Flavio A. Franchina: The multivariate information received by hyphenating gas chromatography and mass spectrometry make the combination the most suitable technique for broad non-targeted analyses, in my view. For example, the quest for novel energies and materials, where it is important to know, in depth, the composition of the new feedstock in order to finely tune the process. The high-selectivity and sensitivity of the GC-MS also make it also suitable for targeted analysis.

Lastly, when considering the evolution of GC and MS into multidimensional and high-resolution coupled together – i.e., GC×GC-HR MS – then it’s possible to combine either (multi)targeted, non-targeted, and post-targeted (retrospective) analyses into a single experimental analytical pipeline, reducing cost and time. Such a high-resolution technique can untangle the complex information contained in biological samples.

However, it’s important to doubly underline that such powerful high-resolution couplings aren’t magic and require broad understanding and/or training. For example, for the best results, the separation step must also be in harmony with proper sample preparation techniques and experimental designs.

Anika Lokker: I’m interested in the development of non-destructive GC-MS analysis in cultural heritage research. HS-GC-MS analysis is already gaining more popularity in the field and l am curious what kind of applications might be coming in the future.

Katelynn Perrault: I am really interested in the application of GC×GC-MS to non-targeted profiling in forensic investigations. There are several areas where GC×GC could be used on a more regular and routine basis. We hope to investigate some of these applications in the future to improve complex chemical separations that can be applied in legal investigations.

What’s Missing from the GC-MS Toolbox?

Dmitry Koluntaev: We live in the era of automation and artificial intelligence. Automated sample preparation stations are increasing in popularity in labs with GC-MS systems. In my opinion, this is a move in the right direction – it helps to reduce possible errors during sample preparation, extraction, derivatization, and affects obtaining accurate results. Especially when approaching metabolomics and clinical screening, these automated solutions are crucial for common practice.

It is obvious that the possibility of integrating AI technologies into software will allow us to not only automate and simplify the analysis of complex GC-MS data (interpretation of mass spectra, for example), but also realize the possibilities in quickly troubleshooting systems.

I am confident that both of these approaches will make our work even more interesting over time, allowing us to open up new directions for GC-MS applications.

Katelynn Perrault: Most of our challenges come from software and data processing, not hardware issues. Our projects typically involve large batch injections and large data files which can lead to challenges in performing quality feature selection. We are starting to work with improved tools, but still run into issues with running effective processing. To see GC×GC reach routine use, I think we will need to continue to see development in making batch data processing much easier for routine laboratories.

Flavio A. Franchina: I see that different soft(er) ionization techniques are finally becoming more available in GC-MS systems, and that they can be exploited together with the conventional electron impact (EI) in a relatively simple manner. The complementarity of information provided by the two approaches adds a superior level of confidence, especially when the unambiguous identity of the analyte becomes fundamental, for example in the discovery of potential disease biomarkers and novel contaminants in life-science and environmental applications. 

Modern GC-MS systems are rugged and reliable, but it’s important that system suitability and quality control settings can be better embedded into native softwares to increase the analysts’/researchers’ awareness, as well as to monitor the preceding analytical steps.

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