The University of New Orleans’ chemistry department has acquired a new research tool that allows researchers to analyze and identify trace samples with more accuracy.
The state-of-the-art tool comes with a $1 million price tag and a name that’s a mouthful to say. The inductively coupled plasma triple quadrupole mass spectrometer coupled with an interchangeable excimer laser ablation system is the only one in the Southeast United States.
The closest machine with similar capabilities is at Auburn University, but it doesn’t have the triple quadrupole, UNO chemistry professor Phoebe Zito said. She refers to the tool by its initials: ICP-QQQ.
“The triple quadrupole is used to separate two overlapping elemental signals which makes it more sensitive. The ICP-QQQ can determine low concentrations of elements in complex samples,” Zito said. “The laser accessory allows for the detection of elements on solid surfaces like ancient pottery, fish bones, rocks and teeth making it extremely versatile.”
Zito uses the human nose to explain the machine’s advanced abilities to sift, measure, categorize, track and identify sample elements.
Think about being near a neighborhood that has a bakery that makes king cakes, Zito explained. The more sensitive your sense of smell, the farther you can be from the bakery and still smell it, she said. Once you detect the smell, you can trace it and as the smell becomes strongest, you will find the bakery.
“Our new instrument is like the nose,” Zito said. “For example, our instrument can detect and trace small concentrations of metals, such as arsenic, lead, mercury that can be toxic to human and organisms, to its source.”
“There are many environmental applications … An anthropologist will use this instrument to measure the elements in pottery to determine how long they were in the ground prior to excavation. A biologist will use it to measure the concentration of calcium in reptile egg shells to obtain information about their growth patterns,” Zito said.
For Zito, whose research focuses on detecting extremely small concentrations of nanometals in environmental samples such as soil and seawater, the ICP-QQQ is necessary in order to get the sensitivity needed to detect and measure nanometals.
The new instrument is able to detect and measure near miniscule concentrations in a liquid or gas sample.
“It is capable of measuring down to femtomolar which is extremely sensitive,” Zito said. “It would be equivalent to detecting 100 drops of food coloring in an Olympic sized pool.”
The instrument was funded from a major research instrumentation grant through the National Science Foundation and will be housed in the Chemical Sciences Building as part of the Chemical Analysis & Mass Spectrometry (CAMS) facility at UNO.
“We want to bring researchers from many disciplines together to use this cutting-edge technology,” Zito said. “Furthermore, it will provide underrepresented students a chance to use advanced analytical instruments even if it’s not in their field.”