The need to characterize ever more complex and numerous samples, primarily of biomedical or environmental origin, has been driving continued innovation in separation science.
The ongoing paradigm shift in the field is replacing or complementing condensed-phase separations such as chromatography or electrophoresis with rapid gas-phase approaches based on ion mobility spectrometry (IMS). The Ion Mobility Spectrometer on a Microchip is a breakthrough toward meeting that demand, as the much smaller size and stronger electric fields lead to unprecedented analytical speed, sensitivity, and dynamic range, and permit seamless coupling to mass spectrometry (MS) for detailed yet rapid measurements.
The transfer of this technology by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) to Owlstone Ltd. of Cambridge, England, has enabled the effective integration of ion mobility microchips with MS, and guided the engineering of next-generation chips with improved resolving power and sensitivity. Combined, the two advances have produced a fundamentally new, comprehensive, broadly useful analytical platform.
Owlstone scientists assembled the revolutionary microfabrication methods lying at the foundation of IMS microchips. The interface technology perfected at PNNL allowed the efficient coupling of those chips to soft-ionization ion sources and MS, leading to the demonstration of general utility of microchip IMS/MS for high-throughput chemical and biological analyses. PNNL’s complementary expertise in unique high-performance MS and IMS/MS instrumentation, and Owlstone’s in microfabrication, enabled fast development of successive prototype chip IMS/MS systems. The performance evaluation at both PNNL and Owlstone demonstrated strong potential for a new analytical product with broad market reach, which has then attracted interest and deep involvement of a major MS instrument manufacturer—Agilent Technologies.
Although Owlstone had developed the chip, it had no expertise or capabilities in MS and interfacing with IMS. Together, PNNL and Owlstone developed a new product that will benefit Owlstone through increased product sales and the analytical community, including PNNL, through improved analysis capabilities. This product benefits numerous applications across a diversity of industries—from security and defense to automotive, environmental control, industrial process monitoring, pharmaceuticals, and healthcare—that depend on the rapid and accurate detection and measurement of chemicals.