Research News

High-flying mass spec

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The ability of biological particles, such as bacteria, fungal spores and plant material, to trigger ice formation in clouds is suggested by a study published in Nature Geoscience (doi: 10.1038/ngeo521). The finding could prove important because the effect of airborne partilces on the formation of cloud ice is one of the largest remaining sources of uncertainty in climate change projections.

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Award for IMS/MS publication

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Professor Alison Ashcroft of the University of Leeds, UK, is the winner of the first Ron Hites Award for Outstanding Research Publication from the American Society for Mass Spectrometry.

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Award for Robin Clark

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Professor Robin J.H. Clark of University College London is the recipient of the inaugural Franklin–Lavoisier Prize, which was presented on 28 January at the Fondation de la Maison de la Chimie in Paris during the Chimie et Art conference. The Franklin–Lavoisier Prize was created in 2008 and is jointly awarded by the Fondation de la Maison de Chimie and the Chemical Heritage Foundation in the USA. The prize aims to recognise unusually meritorious efforts in the preservation or promotion of the entwined scientific heritage of France and the United States.


OSA honorary membership for Theodor Hänsch

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Professor Th.W. Hänsch, Director of the Max-Planck-Institut für Quantenoptik and Chair of Physics at Ludwig Maximilians University, Germany, and Professor Roy J. Glauber, Professor of Physics at Harvard University, USA, have been selected as new honorary members of the Optical Society of America “for their extraordinary contributions to the field of optics”. In 2005, Professor Hänsch shared one half of the Nobel Prize for Physics with Professor John Hall, the other half went to Professor Glauber. The OSA reserves honorary membership “for those individuals who have a profound and lasting influence on the optics community”.


Raman spectroscopy provides IVF breakthrough

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Scientists at the University of Edinburgh, UK, have developed a technique using Raman spectroscopy to test the quality of sperm before it is used for in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and increase the chances of conception. Dr Alastair Elfick, lead scientist on the project, explained: “in natural conception the fittest and healthiest sperm are positively selected by the arduous journey they make to the egg. What our technology does is to replace natural selection with a DNA-based ‘quality score’.” This can then be used to decide whether the sperm is healthy enough to be used to fertilise an egg as part of the IVF treatment.

The sperm are captured in two highly focussed beams of laser light, optical tweezers, and then the DNA of an individual sperm can be analysed from its Raman spectrum. The research is currently in a pre-clinical phase, and if successful could be available to patients in the next five to ten years.


More Raman fertility: pollen forecasts

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Researchers at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany, have reported in Analytical Chemistry (doi: 10.1021/ac801791a) an advance toward development of technology that could underpin automated, real-time systems for identifying specific kinds of plant pollen circulating in the air.

Scientists have identified chemical structures in pollen, shown covering the face and legs of a Marmelade fly, that could help provide a real-time pollen detection and warning system to help allergy sufferers. Credit: André Karwath

Janina Kneipp and colleagues explain that current pollen counts and allergy warnings are based on visual identification of the specific kind of pollen by examining pollen grains under a microscope. That procedure takes time, making it impossible for allergy-sufferers to know the kinds of pollen that are airborne on an hour-by-hour basis. The researchers describe using Raman spectroscopy to identify chemical structures in pollen grains that distinguish oak and maple pollen, for instance, from maple and other kinds. They obtained these chemical “signatures” for 15 different kinds of tree pollen.


IR helps improve crystal growth

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The creation of a reproducible crystallisation process is a fundamental challenge to drug manufacturers, but a technique using infrared spectroscopy could provide an answer. Engineers at the University of Leeds, UK, have developed the technique to monitor supersaturation, required for crystallisation to begin to occur.

Most drug compounds are crystalline, manufactured in batch process systems. Small changes in crystallisation process conditions, such as temperature and cooling rates, can significantly affect the structure of the resulting crystals, something which affects both their physical properties and their performance.

The new technique uses a probe attached to an infrared spectrometer to monitor the concentration of a specific chemical in solution. In laboratory experiments, this technique was used on the batch cooling crystallisation of chemical L-Glutamic acid (LGA). The information gained from the IR spectrometer is coupled with chemometric data to provide a more detailed analysis of the crystallisation process than has been possible with other IR spectroscoopy techniques.

Dr Mahmud from the University of Leeds’ School of Process, Environemtal and Materials Engineering explains: “Using a chemometric approach enables us to take many more parameters into account, which makes it a more reliable predictor of the optimum concentration levels required to produce a particular crystal structure.”

The technique was developed by engineers at Leeds and researchers at Newcastle and Heriot-Watt universities as part of the Chemicals Behaving Badly programme which is funded by the UK’s EPRC, along with ten industrial partners.

The work has been published in Crystal Growth & Design, doi: 10.1021/cg7010265


Pittcon Awards

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A number of spectroscopists are being honoured at the Pittsburgh Conference in March in Chicago, USA.

2009 Ralph N. Adams Awardee: Graham Cooks (Purdue University, USA)
Graham Cooks’ interests involve construction of mass spectrometers and their use in fundamental studies and applications. His interest in minimising sample work-up and avoiding chromatography contributed to the development of the ambient ionisation methods, including desorption electrospray ionisation (DESI). Applications of this method in tissue imaging, forensics and pharmaceutics are in progress.

2009 Pittsburgh Spectroscopy Awardee: Ira W. Levin (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, USA)
Ira Levin’s research interests lie primarily in the applications of vibrational infrared and Raman spectroscopic techniques toward the elucidation of the conformational, dynamical, thermo­dynamic and functional properties of both intact and model membrane assemblies and related systems. Current efforts are in actively translating laboratory imaging research into clinical venues.

2009 Bomem–Michelson Awardee: Martin Quack (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zürich, Switzerland)

2009 Williams–Wright Awardee: Jerome (Jerry) J. Workman, Jr (Luminous Medical Inc., USA)
Jerry Workman’s career has focussed on molecular spectroscopy, including near infrared, infrared, ultraviolet-visible, process analysis and chemometrics. He has served as Chair of the Industrial Advisory Board for the Center for Process Analytical Chemistry (CPAC) at the University of Washington; The Council for Near Infrared Spectroscopy; and is immediate past Chairman of ASTM Main Committee E13 on Molecular Spectroscopy and Separation Science.

2009 Maurice F. Hasler Awardee: Gary M. Hieftje (Indiana University, USA)
Gary M. Hieftje’s research interests include the investigation of basic mechanisms in atomic emission, absorption, fluorescence and mass spectrometric analysis, and the development of instrumentation and techniques for atomic methods of analysis. He is interested also in the on-line computer control of chemical instrumentation and experiments, the use of time-resolved luminescence processes for analysis, the application of information theory to analytical chemistry, analytical mass spectrometry, NIR reflectance analysis, and the use of stochastic processes to extract basic and kinetic chemical information.


Mass sensor

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A group of researchers led by Adrian Bachtold of the CIN2 laboratory in Spain has developed an ultrasensitive mass sensor, which can measure tiny amounts of mass with atomic precision, and with an unprecedented resolution. The device is based on a carbon nanotube of 1 nm diameter which is clamped at both ends to two electrodes. It works as an electromechanical resonator characterised by a mechanical resonance frequency. When atoms are directed towards the nanotube, they hit and stick to its surface. This increases the nanotube mass, thereby reducing its resonance frequency: this slowing of the vibration is used to quantify the mass of the atoms.

At room temperature, the nanotube resonator has a resolution of 25 zg, but cooling the nanotube down to 5 K improves the resolution to 1.4 zg. A sensor of this resolution would allow the detection of tiny amounts of mass such as the mass of proteins or other molecules with atomic resolution. Also, it could be used to monitor nuclear reactions in individual atoms, or biological molecules in chemical reactions.

The researchers tested the device by measuring the mass of evaporated chromium atoms, and the performance, as explained in an article published in the journal Nanoletters (doi: 10.1021/nl801982v), is exceptional. The other members of the team are Benjamin Lassagne and Daniel Garcia, both of CIN2, and Albert Aguasca, from the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya.

One of the challenges of nanotechnology and nanomechanics is having a mass spectrometer working at sub­atomic level. The maximum resolution had been achieved with some silicon resonators (with a resolution of about 7 zg at about 4.2 K). This work has substantially increased that resolution through the use of carbon nanotubes.

The mass of a nanotube is very low, barely a few atograms, so that any tiny amount of added mass will be detected. In addition, the nanotubes are mechanically ultrarigid, which makes them excellent candidates to be used as mechanical resonators. Now, the team is improving the measurement set up and hopes to achieve a resolution of 0.001 zg, the mass of one nucleus, in the near future. The researchers will then place proteins on the nanotube and monitor the change of the mass during reactions.

The development of the CIN2 team has coincided in time with others of similar characteristics, both from the USA. One, at the Technical University of California (Caltech) and the other at the University of California (Berkeley). Both groups have developed mass sensors based on carbon nanotubes, with minor differences between the methods used. The fact was recently highlighted in the journal Nature Nanotechnology


IMSC 2009

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The 18th International Mass Spectrometry Conference, which is held every three years, will take place in Bremen, Germany, from 31 August to 4 September 2009. The conference will be preceded by various short courses and user days from several companies. Workshops covering relevant topics will be conducted during the conference. Additionally, there will be a large exhibition of equipment, instruments and scientific material in mass spectrometry.

The conference will be held in the Bremen Conference Centre, which is located in the centre of the city, 15min walk from the historic old town. As well as a rich cultural heritage, Bremen is home to major mass spectrometry companies and well-known scientists, making it one of the world’s capitals of mass spectrometry!


European Theoretical Spectroscopy Facility

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The ETSF has a “virtual” research infrastructure, combining features present in standard research infrastructures with a collaborative, yet highly distributed scientific and management organisation. Its aim is to carry out research in the theoretical study of materials, nanostructures and other systems.

The ETSF provides access for scientists from the public and private sectors to research tools by issuing calls for proposals and conducting an independent evaluation process. Similar to a synchrotron, the ETSF is structured in “beamlines” covering fields of interest in theoretical spectroscopy, such as optics, quantum transport, time-resolved and photo-emission spectroscopies. The innovation of the ETSF is that it gives access to theoretical physics research tools and expertise rather than to an experimental facility.

The idea of creating the ETSF built on a 15-year collaboration between ten eminent European research groups in condensed matter theory, and the growing demand amongst theoreticians and experimentalists for collaboration using the developed software and support for these calculations.


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