The LCGC Blog: A Report from Riva del Garda: The Current State of the Art of Gas Chromatography
Last month, I attended the 38th International Symposium on Capillary Chromatography (ISCC) and 11th GCxGC Symposium in Riva del Garda, Italy. It had been 12 years since I last attended ISCC, which has historically been held every other year in this majestic town framed by Garda Lake and the towering Dolomites just north of Verona. I had forgotten just how nice of a venue this was for a conference. More importantly, I was extremely impressed by the quality of the program assembled by the organizers. Organization of the scientific program was spearheaded by Prof. Luigi Mondello and his group from the University of Messina in Sicily; they deserve significant congratulations for their work, which of course included also an excellent social program. Of all of the work that was presented, I was most impressed with, and learned the most about, multidimensional gas chromatography (GC). I was also pleased to be able to present, for the first time, the work we have been doing on the development and application of a new detector for GC.
The first three days of the combined conference program, from Sunday, May 18, to Friday, May 23, were dedicated to GCxGC. I previously had fairly little exposure to this technique; I knew a little bit from following Prof. Mondello’s own work in the area (I actually spent a summer in graduate school at the University of Messina working with the group there). A lot of development, both in research labs and commercially, has been realized in the GCxGC field over the past decade or so. To bring newcomers up to speed, talks scheduled for Sunday were primarily tutorials covering various aspects of GCxGC, including basic principles, method development, software development, data processing, and applications. I think this was an extremely effective way to initiate the symposium, and the attendance these sessions drew was impressive. Formally, the scientific program highlighting new research in the area began on Monday with the Lifetime Achievement Award presentation granted to Glenn Frysinger and Richard Gaines of the United States Coast Guard Academy. It was very nice to see the work performed in their labs over the past 12 or so years, especially the stepwise development of modulators used for coupling the two GC dimensions.
Many researchers in the Monday sessions spoke about such instrumental components and their key attributes. This is clearly an area where more research can be performed, but given the increasing availability of commercial instrumentation, there seems to be significant maturity; in fact, the development of instrumentation for GCxGC separations has seemed to surpass the development of detection systems — a key consideration for modern GCxGC is that you need a detector that is fast enough to keep up with the speed of the separations that are generated in the second generation. Key to the development and use of multidimensional separations in general over the past several years has been increasing the run-to-run throughput of sample analysis. Researchers who want MS detection must resort to fast, but expensive time-of-flight systems to keep pace. That said, what really impressed me was the breadth of operations where GCxGC was being applied. I was quite cognizant of its use in petrochemical and food applications (besides fundamental development of components of the technique itself, it was in these areas where perhaps the most work was presented), but there were also several interesting applications in finding biomarker metabolites for diseases and injuries, profiling environmental contaminants, and forensic science. I am excited to stay engaged in the work being performed in GCxGC — maybe even to the point of trying to get involved in it with work from our own lab in the future.
The ISCC component of the combined conference was understandably broader in its coverage of novel research in capillary-scale separation science. My first impression of the program was that it included an exciting list of researchers I would be able to meet and see present at the conference. I guess if you want to draw people to your conference, an exceptional venue helps quite a bit; many attendees also brought their families along.
Of the exceptional lectures associated with ISCC, I was really impressed by two in particular. One was the Golay Award Lecture, given by this year’s award recipient, Prof. Daniel W. Armstrong. Of course, Dan is a colleague of mine at U.T. Arlington; I have seen him talk many times and I serve on the committees for his students, so I know much about his current research work. Yet, this talk was a rare treat. He presented an impressive 30-year retrospective of his work to the audience. It included discussion of prolific pioneering work in the fields of chiral separation systems and the use of ionic liquids in analytical chemistry, among others. Recent research reported on ionic liquid GC stationary phases, including impressive phase polarities with good stability, was a generally interesting topic of the conference, too, but the initial work in this area was performed by Armstrong. To be on the cutting edge and defining new research fields for so many years, Prof. Armstrong is certainly deserving of the honor of this distinguished award.
A second lecture given by Prof. Pat Sandra of the Research Institute for Chromatography (Kortrijk, Belgium) purported to discuss, based on the title, whether capillary GC was approaching the status of a mature technology. Prof. Sandra expertly weaved witty remarks about the definition of a “mature technology” — that is, one for which there are relatively few new developments, which is obviously not the case for capillary GC — into a discussion of the importance of sample preparation to advance separation science. He emphasized how so much effort was placed on making separation faster and more efficient, but yet, many researchers still spend too much time performing suboptimal sample preparation with approaches such as high volume liquid–liquid extraction, a decidedly inefficient technique. Certainly, while capillary GC is maturing, there is still much that can be and is being done to improve overall workflows to address new and challenging analytical problems. We are not at the point where new innovations have ceased.
Regarding new innovation, I would also like to mention a new GC detector technology that I was able to present to the conference attendees in an invited oral presentation. I must, again, thank the organizers and members of the scientific committee, particularly Luigi Mondello and Milton Lee, for giving me that opportunity. For the past five years, I have been working with the Austin, Texas-based company VUV Analytics, Inc., on its development of a new vacuum ultraviolet (VUV) absorption detector for GC. One thing that is interesting about this technology is that it is clearly the newest concept in GC detection to be formulated for many years. Mass spectrometry (MS), still the gold standard for combined quantitative and qualitative analysis, was originally introduced for the first time in conjunction with GC in the 1950s. Of course it has been refined significantly over the years, but the concept has remained largely unchanged. The new VUV detector allows for universal quantitative and qualitative detection. All chemical compounds absorb in the VUV spectral regime monitored by this detector (120–240 nm), and each compound has a unique gas-phase absorption spectrum. I do not want to go into a great deal of detail here, but suffice it to say, that there are many cases where MS detection does not provide appropriate performance (for example, with some isomers or highly labile compounds), and in these cases, the VUV detector performs very well. It also provides detection limits in the low picogram quantities, so it provides sensitivity similar to that of many of the most common GC detectors. Our first report of this technology has been submitted for review and publication in the scientific literature, and we will be reporting further applications in other conferences and articles throughout the next year and beyond — so stay tuned.
Finally, I would like to close by personally inviting you all to the next installment in this conference series, which will be held May 17–21, 2015, in Ft. Worth, Texas. Prof. Armstrong will be Chair of the 39th ISCC and 12th GCxGC combined conference, and I am honored to be serving as a member of the local organizing committee. We will have our work cut out to match the excellent conference organized a few weeks ago in Riva del Garda, but I am confident, given the proximity of Ft. Worth to relevant academic, governmental, and industrial analytical research, as well as the ease of travel to and the allure of the Dallas–Ft. Worth Metroplex area, that it will be a huge success. In fact, if you have never been to this conference and are looking for an excellent combination of high impact, cutting edge science, a great social program in an interesting venue, and a more intimate gathering than the larger analytical conferences, this is one that will not disappoint.
Previous blog entries from Kevin Schug: