Pittcon in the Big Peach – Our Highlights of 2016's Technology

Thousands of scientists, academics and industry professionals were welcomed into Atlanta for Pittcon 2016. Following on from the city’s history of innovation and enterprise the conference hosted the latest cutting-edge technology, covering the fields of chemical analysis, the life sciences, agriculture, security, nanotechnology and more.

Pittcon is more than just an exhibition; the event also hosted talks from influential researchers from around the globe, workshops on cutting-edge techniques and live demos of innovative equipment. The AZo team took some time this week to share some of their highlights.

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Learning from the Best - Talks at Pittcon

Starting with a Bang

The conference began as it meant to continue with a talk from an academic heavyweight; Dr. William E. Moerner, the Chemistry Nobel Prize winner in 2014. Dr. Moerner spoke on the use of single molecule detection as a method of achieving cellular imaging at nanoscale resolution.

This ground-breaking research means biochemists no longer have to rely on statistical thermodynamics to model the behaviour of molecules in cells. Previously, only the bulk motion of molecules could be observed meaning physiologically important, but subtle, elements of molecular mechanisms and structure were invisible to researchers.

The ability to track the motion of individual molecules means more information can be gleaned about the ways in which cells function and communicate with one another. We’re excited to see what new discoveries this research will contribute towards.

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Wonderful Sensing

Graphene, often hailed as a ‘wonder material’ for its exceptional mechanical, physical and chemical properties, has the potential to impact almost every industry there is.

At Pittcon we learnt about the use of graphene in novel chemical and biochemical sensing. Graphene sensors consist of sheets of graphene modified to include molecule-specific receptors. The binding of target molecules to these receptors causes a change in conductivity of the graphene layer – allowing researchers to establish if a molecule of interest is present, and the concentration of these molecules.

The extremely high conductivity of graphene (even when modified by functionalization) means it can be used to detect compounds at levels as low as pbb. This high sensitivity combined with the specificity of the receptors used means graphene is expected to be used in next generation sensors.

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The Next Generation of Scientists

Pittcon also hosted some of the world’s freshest scientific talent. We made sure to pass by the Metrohm booth as they awarded Dr. Amay Bandodkar with their Young Chemist of the Year Award.

Dr. Amay Bandodkar spoke on his multidisciplinary work into the development of wearable biochemical sensors. These sensors are developed using printable ink and can detect specific chemicals in the blood non-invasively. This new technology means diabetics will no longer have to prick their finger to test their blood sugar levels, improving both quality of life and patient safety.

It is hoped that this technology can be extrapolated to detect metabolites that are indicative of an early diseased state such as the cytokines associated with cancer. The easy and early identification of diseases will help doctors to halt disease progression and improve patient care.

A wearable sensor developed by Dr. Bandodkar and his team

Trends in Technology - Highlights of the Exhibition

Making Life Easier

At the conference there was a strong trend towards the simplification of the analysis process. Analysis is an important part of almost every branch of materials science, chemistry and pharmacology. However, until the past few years, it has often required complex and bulky equipment.

Manufacturers are responding to the desire for small and simple analysis tools that provide the level of accuracy that they need. We were consistently impressed by the vast amount of innovative solutions that were being showcased as we walked the floor of the exhibition. Here are some of our favourites;

Specac, experts in FTIR, showcased their new accessory for liquid transmission - the Pearl. The Pearl’s simple functionality and clever design mean there no longer needs to be a compromise between accuracy and throughput when performing infrared analysis on liquid samples.

Despite being (arguably) the most important analytical tool in chemistry NMR analysis can often be time-consuming and inconvenient. In many research institutions scientists must wait overnight for their results and, due to the powerful magnetic fields they produce, the equipment is often housed away from the research lab.

The SpinSolve from Magritek aims to address these issues by providing a benchtop NMR spectrometer which shows exceptional resolution for small molecules.

Whilst the higher order NMR experiments that are essential for -omic studies still require conventional equipment the SpinSolve will be a breath of fresh air for synthetic chemists who are working in the field of drug discovery. Chemists will benefit from faster screening times with less time wasted waiting for those crucial results.

The demand for equipment that can be used in the field is high and manufacturers are responding with portable equipment. One such example is the Niton XL2, a handheld XRF analyser from Thermo Scientific.

The Niton can be used for the elemental analysis of alloys, identifying any trace elements present. This technology has a wide range of applications which span from quality control to scrap metal identification. Comparing the NIton to the XRF technology available 15 years ago the Niton  

The Devils in the Details

As research increasingly focusses on the micro- and nanoscale behaviour and characteristics of materials there is a requirement for more precise equipment that efficiently visualises micro and nanostructures.

The scope of micro- and nanotechnology is enormous. New research breakthroughs in these fields are impacting most aspects of modern life. Such technologies include perovskite solar cells, which are hoped to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and nanoparticles to be used as drug delivery systems for more effective cancer treatments.

For these technologies to become commonplace the accurate measurement of the micro- and nanoscale behaviour and characteristics of materials must be possible. Thankfully, the equipment showcased at the exhibition showed that the precise visualisation of micro- and nanostructures is becoming a reality.

Identifying the size and number of nanoparticles in a solution can be difficult; solutions with a high nanoparticle concentration can give erroneous results and the accurate determination of particle size is tricky. The AccuSizer FX Nano from Particle Sizing Systems can accurately count the number of particles present even if there are more than one million particles present in a 1 mL sample and can accurately determine sizes as low as 150 nm.

For those interested in structures even smaller you need to look no further than the Phenom ProX, produced by Phenom-World, a desktop scanning electron microscope which is also capable of EDS elemental analysis. SEM can be used to probe the topography of materials and can perform functions such as measuring thread diameters, counting particles or identifying microstructures on biological samples in a visually stunning way.

An SEM image of a pervoskite crystal taken using the Phenom ProX

Where Next?

Pittcon plans to continue its tour of the USA and the next stop is going to be Chicago, the Windy City, in March 2017. We’ll see you there!

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