Tiny mass spectrometer shows huge potential

(Left) Two plate ion trap. (Right) Wire ion trap (image courtesy of Austin Research Group - BYU)

A team of researchers at the Brigham Young University in Utah says there are huge potentials for a miniature mass spectrometer which they recently developed.

Daniel Austin, a chemistry professor at the BYU, along with electrical engineering professor Aaron Hawkins and several others, built a miniaturized, linear-type ion trap mass spectrometer. The device was meant for portable chemical analysis and to demonstrate the advantages of using lithographically patterned electrode plates that is less than 1 mm.

The project was funded by the National Science Foundation. A related research was funded by the United States Department of Defence and National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

An ion trap consists of a combination of electronic or magnetic fields which capture charged particles. Ion traps are used for mass spectrometry, basic physics research and controlling quantum states.

Mass spectrometers are used for rapid analysis and detection of chemical compounds. However, spectrometers are often hindered by their bulky size.

The team’s findings, recorded in a paper written by Ailin Li, were recently published in The Journal of American Society for Mass Spectrometry.

“The goal was to take what would otherwise be a huge, bench top instrument to something that’s small enough to carry with you,” said Austin in an interview with the Laboratory Equipment.com.

Since most spectrometers are large and require high-trained technicians to operate them, access to these devices is limited. Many spectrometers are not very sensitive and are prone to break, the researchers said.

A small mass spectrometer that is sensitive and durable is highly desirable.

According to Austin the device they developed could be used for the following:

  • Detecting chemical weapons
  • Detecting explosives in airports or elsewhere.
  • Helping forensic investigators conduct on-site analysis
  • Helping authorities detect drugs

The miniature spectrometer is now being considered for commercial application.

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