Powerful New Mass Spectrometer Takes Scientific World by Storm

A powerful new resource has been developed by researchers to enable scientists across the globe address tough science challenges related to biology, environment, and energy. This resource - 21 Tesla Ultra-High-Resolution Mass Spectrometer (21T) - is available at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, a Department of Energy Office of Science user facility at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Among the projects that scientists are tackling with the 21T: Gaining a better understanding of how microbes in soil affect the carbon cycle. (Photo Courtesy - Pacific Northwest National Laboratory).

21T is designed to facilitate accurate analysis and separation of molecules and atoms based on their molecular structure and size, much better than any traditional mass spectrometers.

Scientists are already exploring the avenues where 21T can be applied. One key area is to understand the way fungi breaks down rugged plant materials better than almost anything humans can manufacture inexpensively. This is crucial to the creation of new fuels and products, based on biological materials possessing a rugged natural material called lignocellulose.

Another query concerns the way that climate change impacts the carbon present in soil and vice versa. It is a fact that the carbon underneath our feet is a large reservoir of latent greenhouse gases, and this is linked closely with the future of Earth’s climate.

The third aspect is to analyze how particles of pollution interrelate with naturally available particles in the Earth’s atmosphere, and impact the way sunlight is absorbed by the atmosphere or deflected from Earth.

A mass spectrometer possessing 21T’s power will enable scientists to see highly detailed products of molecular reactions at the finest scale achievable. Researchers will be able to distinguish between molecular compounds with very minute differences, and identify the molecules that occur in highly complex reactions.

21T enables scientists to study large intact proteins, and preserve their biological operation. It also facilitates simple and better research of the interactions among proteins. For instance, in the current experiments conducted by scientists, the 21T is useful to simultaneously analyze the activities of several microbes present in the soil, and study the complex blend of substances under conditions reflecting real atmospheric conditions.

The 21T allows scientists to nail the identity of a particular molecule more precisely than other technologies. For instance, we've seen examples where a conventional mass spectrometer indicates that there is one compound of interest in a chemical reaction, but the 21T showed that there are actually four or five molecules involved. This is crucial information.

David Koppenaal, Chief Technology Officer, EMSL

The 21T is also known as an ultra-high-resolution MS system. The core part in this innovative instrument is one of the largest magnets in the world - a 21 Tesla magnet - manufactured by Agilent Technologies.

To celebrate the success and the futuristic application of 21T, officials from EMSL, PNNL, DOE's Pacific Northwest Site Office, DOE's Office of Science, elected officials and researchers got together on 14 April 2016 at the EMSL auditorium. The function had many speeches by the officials and PNNL scientists and the 21T team. The program also had a tour of the laboratory and a demo of the instrument.

The Department of Energy Office of Science funded the creation of the 21T and the development of the scientific know-how to allow maximum usage for maximum effect in the scientific world. A similar instrument is also available at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, Florida.

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