In this interview Marc Gonin, co-founder and CEO of TOFWERK talks to AZoM about the history of TOFWERK, the work they do in the OEM market and future projects.
Can you tell us about the history of TOFWERK, the work that you do, and your expansion into the US and China?
TOFWERK emerged from technology used in space research. The founders, Katrin Fuhrer and I, were working at the University of Bern. My project involved building a time-of-flight mass spectrometer for space. We decided to develop this technology for earthbound applications and that was the origin of TOFWERK. (“TOF” stands for time-of-flight.)
When we founded the company in 2002, we first focused on the OEM market - supplying TOF analyzers to other companies. At that time, these companies were usually using quadrupole mass analyzers. We tried to persuade them to change from quadrupole analyzers to TOF analyzers because they are much faster and offer more analytical performance. With this model, we established various long-term OEM partnerships, and sold analyzers to many academic groups who develop their own instrumentation. More recently, our product portfolio expanded to include multiple end-user instruments, that we market and support in parallel to the OEM work.
TOFWERK has grown from three founding members to a team of over 65 scientists and engineers. We recently expanded to the US with an office in Boulder, Colorado, and we are now establishing a facility in China. These new locations will focus on local application and technical support for our end-user products, with R&D and production remaining in Switzerland.
Are there ways in which this OEM history uniquely affects your new end-user products?
Our work in the OEM market has taught us how to collaborate, how to clarify a customer’s needs, and how to integrate our technology with existing hardware and software. The expansion into end-user products happened organically. Our scope of delivery has expanded over the years to include full builds in many cases – including sampling systems and ion sources, diverse mass spectrometer assemblies, and data acquisition and analysis software. As we took on larger projects, our team grew to include people with broad expertise in engineering and applications. With this team, we identify markets that will benefit from TOF technology, and to build and support appropriate solutions.
TOFWERK’s homepage emphasizes that your technology exists for research that demands exceptional speed and sensitivity. What is the relationship between speed and sensitivity?
Sensitivity is a measure of how much signal intensity you record for a given abundance of sample. If you need to measure something to a certain degree of accuracy, you need a certain amount of total signal. With higher sensitivity, you can get the necessary signal – or accuracy - faster. In some cases, our speed equates to higher throughput. For instance, we have developed a system for extremely rapid screening for tainted wine corks based on trace detection of TCA with our Vocus PTR-TOF. This approach – which will screen every single cork - is only practical for manufacturers if the system can operate at a speed that does not bottleneck production. In other cases, our speed enables measurement of rapidly changing signals. For instance, the Vocus PTR-TOF is ideal measurements aboard mobile labs where speed equals spatial resolution.
TOF mass analyzers are not commonly used in ICP-MS. What advantages does your icpTOF bring compared to the more traditionally used analyzers, such as quadrupoles and magnetic sensors? Are there any applications that it is uniquely suited for?
The analyzers you mention are sequential analyzers, that scan through all mass/charge values to build a mass spectrum. In contrast, our icpTOF simultaneously measures all elements, generating a complete mass spectrum in microseconds. This makes it ideal for measuring short lived signals that contain many elements. With that mind, we focus on laser ablation ICP-MS imaging, where we can measure a complete spectrum for every laser pulse, and therefore record images at unprecedented speed. Additionally, the TOF measures single particles extremely well. A single particle going into the ICP plasma only lasts for a couple of milliseconds, at most. The icpTOF can uniquely quantify all elements in each particle.
At Pittcon 2017 you launched the Vocus PTR-TOF. What response have you gotten from your customers? Can you tell us about the industries or the types of applications that you have targeted with this product?
This system was immediately well received in the atmospheric science community, where it is used to measure trace components in ambient air. Measuring this clean air demands sensitivity, and this instrument has a factor of about 30 times more sensitivity than its closest competitor. We are also getting very positive response from groups working in air monitoring and quality control, where the trace aromas can give insights into process status or contamination.
This year at Pittcon, what did TOFWERK focus on? What did you gain from participating in Pittcon 2019?
The most important thing we took away from Pittcon 2019 was discovery of new applications that we can support - things that we can do with our end-user instruments, including our new, compact versions of the Vocus PTR-TOF. Conversation at our booth is always diverse and enlightening, and we found some things that we can hopefully develop back at home in Switzerland.
To find out more please visit https://www.tofwerk.com/
About Dr. Marc Gonin
Dr. Marc Gonin is the co-founder and CEO of TOFWERK in Thun, Switzerland.
TOFWERK develops diverse instruments and analytical solutions based on their fast, sensitive time-of-flight mass spectrometry technology.
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