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Graphic element Research > Growth > Research projects > Measurements & testing projects > Low-cost analyser answers environmental need
Graphic element Low-cost analyser answers environmental need

The accumulation in plants, fish and animals of organo-metallic compounds resulting from human activities can cause serious ecological and health problems. However, the toxicity of trace metals may depend greatly upon the type of molecule in which they occur. A group of European research institutes has worked together to produce the world's first instrument that will allow routine analysis of individual molecular species at a widely affordable cost.

Hundreds of people in the Japanese village of Minimata died in 1955 after ingesting an organic form of mercury transported by fish. This tragedy dramatically highlighted the dangers of toxic organo-metallic molecules. Concerns at the increasing concentrations of lead entering the food chain, mainly from vehicle exhaust emissions, have also resulted in the widespread withdrawal of leaded fuels. But, even today, there is no universally agreed method of quantifying such pollutants.

Pooling expertise

A European conference held in Bordeaux in the early 1990s brought together three leading researchers with a keen interest in the subject. At that time, measurement of the problem compounds was only possible using costly and complex combinations of techniques. Such work was being carried out by only a relatively small number of specialists, and there were no common grounds for reliable comparison of results.

Dr. Wolfgang Buscher (Institut für Chemo- und Biosensorik, Germany), Professor Richard Lobinski (Laboratoire de Photophysique and Photochimie, France) and Professor Freddy Adams (University of Antwerp, Belgium) therefore introduced a proposal to develop a low-cost, easy-to-use instrument that would allow much broader investigation of the problem.

The resultant 1.3 million Automated speciation analyser (ASA) project was launched in October 1996 with approximately 43% funding from the EC. By the end of its 39-month term, a prototype system had successfully been demonstrated at international analytical conferences, and a manufacturer was identified to produce the instrument on a commercial scale.

Innovative and versatile system

The ASA employs a three-stage procedure to determine metal concentrations at trace and ultra-trace levels in naturally occurring materials such as flesh and plant tissue:

1. The samples are chemically treated to convert the target molecules into a volatile form, which can be extracted by boiling off and collecting in a receiver cooled to -100°C - a so-called 'purge and trap' process.

2. The trapped extract is purified by gas chromatography (GC), whereby it is diffused along with a carrier gas through a column containing a liquid stationary phase. Because of their differential solubilities and volatilities, individual components emerge from the column at different times, and can thus be isolated.

3. The organo-metallic compound is subjected to elemental analysis in a specially designed optical emission spectrometer (OES) module. Heating to a very high temperature in a miniature microwave-induced helium plasma causes the constituent elements of the compound to emit their characteristic spectra. The wavelength of interest is isolated by means of a selective filter, and the concentration of metal present measured with an element-selective detector.

Purge and trap separation is completed in around three minutes, while the use of a bundle of more than 900 capillary columns reduces the GC stage by five to ten times compared with conventional systems. Consequently, complete analyses are accomplished in as little as ten minutes, making this an extremely practical tool for routine sample throughput.

To date, the ASA has been equipped to determine mercury, tin and lead. Switching from one element to another is extremely simple, involving only the replacement of the interchangeable filter. Excellent results have been achieved in the analysis of standard reference materials such as fish and lobster tissue. Further extensions of the elemental range are planned for the future.

The system is compact enough to fit into a modest workspace, while employing filters rather than complex OES optics was a key factor in reducing the overall cost of the instrument. Moreover, the fact that it can also be used in a normal GC mode with, for example, carbon selective detection, will add further to its appeal.

  Protecting the environment

Following completion of the project, German analytical equipment supplier Gerstel acquired the rights to manufacture and market the analyser. It is hoped that a commercial version will be ready for launch at the Pittcon 2001 exhibition in New Orleans, USA.

Project co-ordinator Wolfgang Buscher notes that initial interest will probably be confined to the 2-300 researchers currently working on speciation analysis around the world. However, the availability of a rapid, simple and inexpensive analyser could trigger the enactment of much-needed new legislation to safeguard health and improve environmental protection. In that case, many small and medium-sized laboratories in Europe will be able to profit from the provision of a valuable public service.

Pooling expertise
Innovative and versatile system
Protecting the environment

Key data

A number of EU-funded research projects under the Measurements and testing generic activity of the Growth Programme focus on measures to increase consumer protection, health and safety, and to protect the environment.

Project: ASA - Automated speciation analyser (SMT 4962044)

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