Whether we like it or not, the ecological footprint of humanity continues its steady climb. We can’t afford to ignore our impact on the environment, and yet, we must move forward with our lives, our business, and our knowledge of the world.
Similarly, the march of constant improvement in the scientific instruments industry must also move forward, even in an economic downturn. R&D spending has thus far weathered the recession and, as The Wall Street Journal reported this month, has thus far posted modest gains for most of the top R&D companies over the past year. The need for solutions to real-world problems is apparent, and the instrument makers at the 2009 Pittcon show—still the largest of its kind, reaching a 19,000 attendance figure despite the damp economy and a chilly Chicago in March—have responded with substantial gains in analysis science.
Notably, in addition to performance improvement and entirely new methodologies, the “green” angle was frequently touted in the marketing or performance of the product. Sometimes, as in the case of Thermo Fisher’s GreenFumeHoods, the environmental angle was aggressively promoted. Other times, as in the case of Shimadzu’s Shim-pack XR-ODS columns that allow the use of solvent alternatives such as methanol, the vendor is an accidental beneficiary of a conservation-minded user base that knows their typical solvent—acetonitrile—is now in short supply.
Methodology was also a big green selling point. Illinois-based Systea Scientific touted its new USEPA approval for a nitrate-based wastewater compliance monitoring method that eliminated the generation of hazardous waste, and exposure to compounds such as hydrazine and cadmium. The company earned an award at Pittcon for its process, and was a featured member of Pittcon’s Green Corner, another recent addition to the show.
The theme extended even to laboratory furniture. Durcon Inc. is now selling epoxy resin work surface material with recycled content and VOC levels below that required by NASA for its space capsule interiors. The company claims the surfaces can help contribute LEED credits to certified laboratory construction projects.
The economy may have temporarily put a damper on a larger “green” revolution, but the laborious product development by many vendors in the preceding year clearly reflected a steady commitment to the environmental—and fiscal—priorities of their customers. The notion of “green” instrumentation can no longer be brushed aside. Let’s look at a few of the new products promising a savings of money and resources.
Product: Orion Green Electrodes
Company: Thermo Fisher Scientific
Green electrodes dispense with the heavy metals
Thermo Scientific’s Orion Green pH electrode was one of the few Pittcon 2009 products specifically marketed for its environmental performance, and for good reason. According to the company, it is the first laboratory glass-bulb pH electrode to contain both no lead and no mercury. These electrodes also contain no other hazardous substance. Because some electrode designs are non-refillable, this eases the burden of disposal for the user.
“The electrode is ‘green’ in spirit—environmentally-friendly,” says Sabrina Kalsi, director of marketing for Water Analysis Instruments at Thermo Scientific. “Most electrodes use glass with lead in the formulation and have lead soldering. Our challenge was to get the same measuring response with a glass formulation without lead.”
Typically, this glass contains about 20% lead. For this reason, electrodes currently have an exemption from the European Union’s Restrictions on Hazardous Substances directive. Many test and measurement products, in fact, have RoHS exemptions, but Thermo Fisher and others are making a conscious effort to jump ahead of the curve.
Used in conjunction with an electrical pH meter, pH electrodes are used to ensure the water quality of drinking water, wastewater, industrial process water, and environmental water. Environmental labs, municipalities, educational labs, and QA/QC labs all measure in the laboratory and out in the field to ensure clean, safe water.
In the 1970s, mercury/mercury chloride—or calomel—electrodes become the industry standard. These rely on the responsiveness of the heavy metal to certain organic compounds, but pose a significant threat to the environment if the electrodes are sent to a landfill. Thermo Fisher found alternatives to mercury years ago, and now relies on a silver/silver chloride-based reference electrode for many of its electrode lines. Calomel is still in demand, but Kalsi says that even for difficult applications the non-mercury and lead-free designs are up to the task. For example, clinical laboratories often use TRIS, a biological buffer that’s popular for DNA extraction and interferes with the performance of mercury/mercury chloride electrodes.
“A traditional silver/silver chloride reference will have a reaction at the junction with TRIS, proteins and sulfates—killing the electrode,” says Kalsi. Calomel electrodes do not have this problem, but they introduce mercury into the environment.
“The ROSS and double-junction electrode designs are safer alternatives—with no performance trade-offs. We currently do not market any mercury electrodes—there are safer alternatives,” she says.
Orion Green pH electrodes are supplied in both single and double-junction formats, and with low-maintenance and refillable casings. Depending on whether the user will be operating in the laboratory or the field, the electrodes will last from one to two years.
The response from users indicates to Kalsi that Thermo Fisher Scientific has fulfilled its mission of leading the charge toward environmentally-friendly sensing products.
“They like the idea of being part of the solution—not the problem. To test with an electrode that will be one day in a landfill with lead and mercury adding to the problems is not palatable,” says Kalsi.
Thermo Scientific, http://www.thermo.com
Product: iTOC-CRDS Isotopic Carbon Analyzer
Company: Picarro Inc. and OI Analytical, Inc.
Organic carbon isotope detection—continuously, on the go
Some instruments presented at Pittcon 2009 with strong ties to environmental concerns were not necessarily designed to minimize environmental impacts, but, rather, to measure those impacts.
The isotope-measuring iTOC-CRDS from Picarro Inc., Sunnyvale, Calif., is one such product. The newest adaptation of the company’s cavity ring down spectroscopy-based isotopic carbon dioxide analyzer that earned Picarro Inc. an R&D 100 Award last year is the new Isotopic Carbon Analyzer (iTOC-CRDS). It now incorporates an integrated total organic carbon (TOC) combustion/oxidation front end from OI Analytical Inc., College Station, Texas.
“This is the first pairing of a real-time isotopic analyzer and a front end that allows you to measure the carbon isotopes from both liquid and solid samples,” says Aaron Van Pelt, marketing engineer at Picarro Inc.
The significance is substantial. Isotopic carbon measurement has typically been unwieldy. Measurement of the isotopes in parts per million concentrations of small gas-phase molecules typically requires a large, expensive instrument with a sizable magnet—an isotope ratio mass spectrometer (IRMS) has been the standard. Continuous testing in the field is out of the question; single measurements usually require that a sample be collected and returned to the laboratory where an expert takes charge.
Wavelength-scanned, cavity ring-down technology, however, has opened isotopic measurement capability to just about any user. A tunable diode laser is directed into a three-mirrored optical cavity and the light collected at the output with a photodiode. When the laser is shut off, light to leaks from the cavity onto the detector, decaying (or ringing down) in an exponential fashion. The CRDS analyzer accurately measures this. When an absorbing gas is introduced to the cavity and the laser is again fired, a second loss mechanism is introduced that can be accurately measured. The difference in loss time with or without absorption is then compared.
Because the cavity effectively multiplies the pathlength many times (equivalent to about 20 km), sensitivity is boosted to the parts per billion. The compact layout allows Picarro to design small, rugged instruments for in situ measurements at a fraction of the cost of IRMS. Moreover, unlike IRMS, the CRDS measurement requires no expensive helium.
“Taking the point-of-measurement from the lab to the field is major step forward. The CRDS technology allows us to get the size down. It’s an elegant way to spectroscopically quantify carbon isotopes,” says Van Pelt. Unsurprisingly, climatologists have added CRDS to their toolkit as a way to improve their climate models. The carbon cycle is exceedingly complex, and so far many researchers have lacked hard data about the source of carbon emissions—industry, plants, or even the soil itself. The iTOC-CRDS can supply this data.
“Some of the newest applications are things that have never been done before,” says Van Pelt. Carbon sequestration is a good example. “And it’s great idea, except if it leaks.”
Van Pelt says the Australian research organization CSIRO is using Picarro’s instruments to understand how to quantify and trac leaks at carbon sequestration sites. CRDS is sensitive enough to differentiate the isotopes in leaked carbon as compared to the carbon isotopes in the background air.
Coupled to the TOC liquids and solids unit, the CRDS system’s potential increases significantly, allowing it to analyze chocolate, milk, olive oil, and other food products. Forensics also benefits.
“In one case recently, three different bombs were strapped to three different location on railroads. By using isotopic analysis, he authorities were able to see if all had come from the same batch of bomb-making material before they were detonated,” says Van Pelt. That way they knew they were only looking for one perpetrator.
Ultimately, iTOC-CRDS remains a discrete sampling system, but, in practice, a continuous analyzer feature allows continuous measurements. This allows the CRDS deployed in places such as the Antarctic ice sheet, to contribute substantially to climatological studies. Some of this data has already appeared in published studies, and, when used in conjunction with data from carbon dioxide and methane detectors, can provide a better platform for making Kyoto Protocol type enforcements, says Van Pelt.
“This really moves science forward. It allows scientists to take more data, on the fly, so quick changes in sample choice or location can be made in the field. and make changes on their initial analysis. Previously they were waiting months and months for that answer,” says Van Pelt.
OI Analytical, http://www.oico.com/
Piccaro Inc., http://www.picarro.com/
Product: Prominence nano LC
Company: Shimadzu Scientific Instruments Inc.
Low flow, no waste, greener HPLC
Solvent price fluctuations have caused significant headaches for liquid chromatography users in recent years. The acetonitrile shortage is probably the most famous recent example, but all solvent markets have taken a turn toward the outrageous.
Cheaper alternatives sometimes aren’t an option. Methanol is cheaper, but has less stability. Worse, the paperwork involved for laboratories that must deal with strict regulatory procedures means that it’s better to endure the analytical slowdown.
Conservation of a solvent then, is both smart business and an ecologically responsible proposition. Not all solvents are bad for the environment, but enough are that clean-ups involving LC instruments require hazardous substance precautions.
This and the growth of proteomic analysis is why the market for nanoflow instrumentation—such as the Prominence nano LC on display at the Shimadzu booth at Pittcon 2009—has been steadily growing. The ability to provide high sensitivity without the drawbacks of excess mobile phase consumption is an attraction that’s hard for users to ignore.
“Any LC you are looking at, the less solvent you use, the more green it is,” says Simon Robinson, high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) product manager at Shimadzu Scientific Instruments Inc., Columbia, Md. “The major advantage to the nano users is they are used to using very small amounts of mobile phase. But this (mobile phase) can be very expensive, even if it’s not necessarily toxic.” Significant conservation goals can still be achieved, he says, even among low consumption devices like the Prominence nano LC.
In proteome analysis, proteins and peptides exist in extremely small amounts. High-sensitivity mass spectrometry (MS) is the best choice for locating them, leading to demand for low-flow HPLC front-ends like the nano LC.
The difference with the Prominence nano LC is that a conservation-minded pump design has been adopted that uses both a nanoflow sensor and a reflux flow block with a reflux flow bypass. The pre-pump solvent recapture system takes unused solvent, whether the result of a nano-split or another factor, and automatically reroutes it back to solvent containment. The design prevents any potential for cross-contamination. Even if contamination were to occur from an external source, says Robinson, the maximum amount affected would be about 30 mL.
“What this system allowed us to do was to use something similar to a scintillation vial for the mobile phase bottle,” says Robinson. “Any time you send the flow back into a large solvent bottle, it scares me. You’ve got a big bottle of mobile phase and if a contaminant gets in there it’s done.”
This can waste time and expensive mobile phase, he adds, which is why the developers chose to use its most reliable pumping architecture. “The advantage we are seeing at the moment is that the stability of the system is unparalleled,” says Robinson. The strongest positive customer feedback so far has been from experienced mass spec users. The ability of nanoflow LC to conserve mobile phase has led to pairing of the system with automatic sampling loading equipment, and Shimadzu carries an ultraviolet-visible light (UV-VIS) detector for the Prominence nano LC as well.
One area nanoflow LC users do not have to worry about is energy use: “As far as pulling less juice it doesn’t matter. There’s nothing in LC that pulls down a lot of amps,” says Robinson.
Shimadzu Scientific Instruments, http://www.shimadzu.com
Product: 538 Series IntelliSwitch II
Company: Concoa Precision Gas Controls
Conserving intelligently under pressure
The IntelliSwitch II was one of just 50 gas pressure and flow control products on display at Concoa’s Pittcon 2009 booth, but it was undeniably the centerpiece of the Virginia Beach, Va.-based company’s efforts to modernize commercial gas control systems. A good indication of the direction the company has taken with this flagship pressure switch was the demonstration by Larry Gallagher, specialty gas products manager at Concoa, who controlled the instrument entirely from a laptop computer with an Ethernet cable.
Its predecessor, the IntelliSwitch, was launched in 2004 and introduced logic circuitry to interchangeable service and continuous supply gas installations in a variety of settings, including analytical laboratories, medical facilities, and chemical processing. Several features were new to the market, such as automatic tank pressure check and a relief-valve sensor that helped conserve customers’ gas and money.
The 538 Series IntelliSwitch II builds on this success, incorporating an onboard Web server and embedded software within a standardized NEMA 4 enclosure to help customers manage gas supplies more efficiently and remotely.
“One of the primary ways we looked to improve it was to help end users conserve gas in their applications. One of the key problems we encountered with cryogenic cylinders, [is that] the way they perform, it’s possible to have them appear to be empty when they’re really not,” says Dick Cusimano, director of engineering at Concoa. The Look-Back feature aims to remedy the gas loss when the automatic sensor decides the cryo-tank is empty and swaps to the new tank. “When the IntelliSwitch first senses the cylinder is empty, we’ll wait some period of time and look again to see if there’s pressure back in the cylinder. If there is pressure, we continue to use whatever gas is left. In doing so, we are increasing the amount of gas the end user is able to utilize from a cylinder,” says Cusimano.
The complete use of gas also prevents the expelling of waste gas when the tank is returned for refilling. In the event of carbon dioxide, this unnecessarily contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. The other environmentally-friendly component is what calls the “Economizer.” Because cryogenic tanks build pressure over time, lulls in drawing gas can trigger a relief valve that vents excess gas to the air.
“If the tanks are sitting idle and the user is not drawing gas from them, the product continues drawing head pressure that might exceed the level at which the relief valve opens,” says Cusimano. In a two-tank system, Concoa’s developers realized, this waste is unnecessary. The Economize senses the impending vent to air and draws gas off that tank.
In addition to these internal monitors, the system is also geared to be controlled from a remote workstation via its internal network connectivity. The system can be configured to send email alerts in case of an alarm, or be manually locked-out remotely to prevent tampering. As a result of these measures, the company is able to demonstrate considerable cost savings over time from the conservation of gas.
According to Gallagher, his salespeople use a cost reduction formula in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to help customers gauge whether they will save money on their gas use by switching to the IntelliSwitch II. With regard to loss of gas, “we typically put that number around 20% in the program. But it can be as high as 40%” for some types of installations, says Gallagher.
Given the cost of the IntelliSwitch II, it’s not a surprise that traditional analog pressure switches are still an option for specialty gas users. But Gallagher says his experience with the customers shows that a demand exists for moving toward a “smart grid” technology that helps people manage compressed gas more efficiently.
“Historically, with the compressed gas industry, it has been way behind the technological edge. It’s only been in the last 20 years or so that manufacturers and gas suppliers really started thinking about these kinds of things, and even then it was usually a pressure switch that activated an LED or sounded a beeper,” says Gallagher.
Now, however, the ability to save gas has an added benefit of being perceived as “green”. In addition to preventing extra gases—potentially of the greenhouse variety—from escaping to the atmosphere, the successful containment of a given amount of gas reduces the amount of energy used to produce the gas in the first place.
This ecologically-aware attitude has pervaded the company, says Cusimano. “We reuse and recycle a lot of the chemicals used in processing here, and recycle a lot of scraps. We also adhere to RoHS standards,” he says.
Published in R & D Magazine: Vol. 51, No. 2, April, 2009, pp.8-11.