Miniaturization: The Future of the Mass Spectrometer?

mass-spectrometer-miniaturizationIf you work in mass spectrometry, chances are your lab is a popular place. Anyone and everyone is sending material back to your lab for analysis—and of course, they all want the results yesterday.

This is why researchers around the world are working on ways to shrink the various mass spectrometer components, with the hope that someday investigators can actually take an MS with them into the field.

Why Miniaturization?

That portability is a key factor in the drive to make the mass spectrometer smaller. Evidence can be collected quickly, but then it must be sent back to a lab, where it sits in line with all the other samples waiting to be tested. However, if investigators can bring an MS to each site and run the analysis right there, then ideally there should be no laboratory backlogs.

Another advantage to “downsizing” the mass spectrometer is that a tiny, low-voltage gas ionizer would be able to work at much higher vacuum pressures. This minimizes the need for a vacuum pump. Meanwhile, vacuum pumps themselves could be reduced to the size of a chip, which decreases both energy consumption and the cost of production.

Lowering the cost of the various mass spec parts is another advantage of miniaturization. Batching microfabricated components can drop the cost of a mass spectrometer from thousands to hundreds of dollars, making it economically viable as a handheld tool in the arsenal of every investigator and technician.

This could also lead to the introduction of mass specs for uses that have been cost-prohibitive in the past, such as monitoring air quality in commercial buildings on a wide-scale basis.

What’s Happening to Make This Dream a Reality?

Of course, we wouldn’t be talking about this evolution in mass spectrometry if there hadn’t already been work done in this area.

Triple quadrupole tandem mass spectrometers are the workhorses of quantitative analysis. Recently, the first mini triple-quadrupole mass analyzer has been successfully developed, although more work is required before it will be available commercially. This micro analyzer was developed by a team at Microsaic Systems in England.

One big difference between this and other prototypes is that earlier versions have all used ion traps. Another is that the analyzer itself is about a quarter of the size of conventional mass specs. Researchers have proven its capabilities with both single-stage and tandem mass spectrometry. It can detect pesticides at 10 ppb, well within acceptable parameters.

Waiting on the Future of the Mass Spectrometer

Not surprisingly, creating the analyzer is just the first step in a much larger process. The rest of the system must be created around the analyzer, including components for inflow, outflow, and vacuum capacity. This means that, at least for the next few years, full-sized mass specs will still be the best option available for spectrum analysis.

It also means that those larger, noisier vacuum pumps will continue to make conversation difficult in your lab unless you use dedicated lab furniture that includes a noise-reduction enclosure. Moreover, those vacuum pumps will continue creating vibrations that could reduce the performance and useful life of the components in your mass spec, unless you invest in dedicated lab furniture that includes dampening springs.

Investing in the IonBench is one way to ensure your current mass specs will last until the micro-MS evolution is complete. Contact us today to learn more.