Portable mass spectrometer enables chemical analysis on the move

Written by Hannah Coaker, Future Science Group

Miniaturized mass spectrometer may provide a user-friendly approach to the near real-time detection of dangerous or illicit compounds.

A group from Purdue University (IN, USA) has developed a portable mass spectrometer, fully contained in a wearable backpack (10 kg), which exhibits a geometry-independent low-temperature plasma ion source integrated into a handheld head unit (2kg) that enables direct surface-sampling analysis.

The portable mass spectrometer is designed to tackle the problems of rapid analysis in remote or hazardous locations. Graham Cooks, who co-led the study alongside Zheng Ouyang, explained that the instrument is capable of “looking at complex mixtures without any prior separations, and gives almost immediate answers.”

The team reported that the mass spectrometer is able to detect chemical warfare agent stimulants, illicit drugs and explosives at the nanogram level directly from surfaces, including skin, glass, cotton and cardboard, in near real time.

Inbuilt software means that the device is user-friendly and may be used by non-specialists. “It is really a ‘point-and-shoot’ device for people that are not familiar with MS or analytical chemistry,” commented Cooks. The instrument may be programmed to detect certain ions and is capable of comparing the spectra that the user is recording against a library of compounds. Once the target substance is detected, light emitting diodes on the handheld unit light up to indicate a positive match.

The instrument is anticipated to have an array of potential applications in the future, for example, to monitor the environmental impact of a chemical spill, or for the discovery of new natural products.

Source: Hendricks PI, Dalgleish JK, Shelley JT et al. Autonomous in situ analysis and real-time chemical detection using a backpack miniature mass spectrometer: concept, instrumentation development, and performance. Anal. Chem. DOI: 10.1021/ac403765x (2014) (Epub ahead of print).