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Nanotube Coating Helps Shrink Mass Spectrometers

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A carbon nanotube-coated paper triangle placed on an ionization source charged by a small battery is held in front of a mass spectrometer. Researchers at Purdue University and the Indian Institute of Technology Madras studied the use of carbon nanotubes to advance ambient ionization techniques. (Purdue University photo/Courtesy of Thalappil Pradeep)

Nanotechnology is advancing tools likened to Star Trek's "tricorder" that perform on-the-spot chemical analysis for a range of applications including medical testing, explosives detection and food safety. Researchers found that when paper used to collect a sample was coated with carbon nanotubes, the voltage required was 1,000 times reduced, the signal was sharpened and the equipment was able to capture far more delicate molecules. A team of researchers from Purdue University and the Indian Institute of Technology Madras performed the study. "This is a big step in our efforts to create miniature, handheld mass spectrometers for the field," said R. Graham Cooks, Purdue's Henry B. Hass Distinguished Professor of Chemistry. "The dramatic decrease in power required means a reduction in battery size and cost to perform the experiments. The entire system is becoming lighter and cheaper, which brings it that much closer to being viable for easy, widespread use." "Taking science to the people is what is most important," Pradeep said. "Mass spectrometry is a fantastic tool, but it is not yet on every physician's table or in the pocket of agricultural inspectors and security guards. Great techniques have been developed, but we need to hone them into tools that are affordable, can be efficiently manufactured and easily used."