Pittcon 2009, Chicago, US

Matt Wilkinson/Chicago, US

Analytical instrument makers exhibiting at Pittcon were keen to emphasise the efficiency and cost-saving benefits of their latest devices, at a meeting where the economic downturn was top of the agenda.

Over recent years, the industry’s strongest growth has been in Asia, but the World Bank is forecasting that ’world trade is on track in 2009 to record its largest decline in 80 years, with the sharpest losses in East Asia’. 

However, the global recession could have unexpected benefits for the sector.

The most immediate source of good news comes from the recently announced US stimulus package, which will pump an extra $21 billion (?15 billion) into science. Much of this money will end up funding research positions, but significant sums are sure to be spent on new laboratory equipment and instrumentation.

While the consolidation in the pharmaceutical industry and the deepening problems in the chemical industry are certainly affecting instrument sales, the increased focus on food testing following recent contamination scares could also assist the industry. The contamination of Chinese milk products with melamine (Chemistry World, October 2008, p5) has highlighted the need for more government and independent food testing. 

More with less 

While increasing instrument sensitivity is always a key feature of the latest analytical instruments, exhibitors at Pittcon 2009 were equally keen to stress their instruments’ potential for increasing laboratory efficiency, enabling customers to do more with less. Perhaps the most striking examples of these were new liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) systems such as the Thermo Fisher Scientific Exactive, and the Waters Xevo QTof (quadrupole time of flight).

These instruments are intended to reduce analysis time while increasing the amount of data collected, and can routinely identify compounds and metabolites in complex biological fluids such as blood or urine. They do this by coupling fast chromatography systems to very sensitive mass spectrometers that collect more data on each compound eluted from the LC column, meaning that fewer experiments need to be run before compounds can be definitively identified.

According to Kirby Pilcher, chief executive of Artel, another way to increase laboratory efficiency is to train staff properly so that they make fewer mistakes when pipetting liquids, and so don’t waste time and resources having to repeat experiments. The company has seen a huge increase in interest for its pipette quality management training courses - with one marketing representative having signed up more people to the courses in the first two months of this year than the whole of 2008.

Sipping solvent 

Making the most of resources has also become particularly important in the wake of the acetonitrile shortage (Chemistry World, January 2009, p18). The solvent is produced as a byproduct of acrylonitrile manufacture, which has been hit by a drop in demand due to the global recession. According to SRI consulting, around 70 per cent of acetonitrile is used by the pharma industry for chemical synthesis and extraction, with a further 15 per cent being used for HPLC sample analysis. Of particular interest to many visitors were US firm B/R Instrument’s solvent recycling systems, which Paul Van Trieste, the company’s executive vice president, says can dramatically reduce customers’ solvent purchasing and disposal costs. 

Swedish instrument maker Biotage was keen to highlight how its Isolute supported liquid extraction plates can be used to efficiently extract acidic, basic and neutral compounds without using acetonitrile. US rivals Agilent and Thermo Fisher Scientific also discussed how using shorter HPLC columns with smaller internal diameters packed with materials that give smaller pore sizes at higher pressures could help reduce solvent consumption during analysis. 

Rohit Khanna, Waters’ vice president of worldwide marketing, told Chemistry World  how using UPLC (ultra performance liquid chromatography), which runs at higher pressure, can reduce solvent usage by up to 95 per cent compared to traditional HPLC methods. SFC (supercritical fluid chromatography) products can reduce solvent use further still. ’With the global shortage of acetonitrile and the sizable ongoing operational costs of solvent disposal, greener technologies like UPLC and SFC are smart choices. For many of our customers this can lead to millions of dollars of savings each year, and if we transition the 200,000 installed HPLC systems to UPLC or SFC the impact would be the reduction of thousands of tankers of solvent each year,’ Khanna concludes.