Unlike consumables such as reagents, gloves and pipette tips, lab equipment is an investment that will define your facility’s research capabilities and limitations for years. Selecting an instrument with too few features will limit the type of analysis you’re able to perform in-house, while purchasing a system that is too complex could lead to an error-prone setup or analysis by novice users.
Nowhere is this truer than in the case of mass spectrometers. Mass spectrometry is used in many fields – from biologics characterization to environmental testing to forensic analysis – to identify the components of various samples. Since these complex instruments require a significant investment of both time and money in order to run, it’s important to choose the right mass spectrometer for your purposes.
According to Dr. Robert E. Haufler, Staff Scientist at mass spectrometry company SCIEX, quadrupole time-of-flight (QTOF) analyzers provide high-quality, accurate data, however there have historically been limitations to this technology. Size and ruggedness, along with the ability of the instrument to withstand day-to-day use are among some of the principal challenges identified by Haufler and his colleagues.
“Contamination is a big challenge for mass spectrometers,” Haufler told Xtalks, after speaking in a webinar about recent innovations in mass spectrometer technology. “The sample goes in and gets the instrument dirty on the inside.”
Haufler believes these challenges and more have been solved in SCIEX’s X500 QTOF mass spectrometer. This latest iteration of the technology is the result of years of work performed by Haufler and his colleagues.
“It’s a very rugged instrument,” said Haufler. “And if you go into a lab, some are challenged on space, and so having a nice small size is useful for some customers.”
High resolution is key when analyzing complex biological products but in the case of TOF analyzers, this comes at a cost. Compared to other types of mass spectrometers, TOF analyzers tend to be larger, which can be an issue for labs in which space is limited.
In addition, mass accuracy can be compromised if thermal effects aren’t taken into account in the design of the instrument. Peaks in the output of the mass spectrometer can shift due to temperature changes and thermal expansion of the components in the analyzer, requiring the user to perform more frequent calibration to ensure data is consistent.
By simplifying and streamlining, Haufler and his team were able to develop a QTOF mass spectrometer that was compact without compromising resolution and accuracy.
“The approach to accomplishing the time-of-flight technique in an analyzer of this size is new in this particular instrument,” said Haufler, of the SCIEX X500 QTOF. “The overall guiding objective was to simplify.
“My thought is if the instrument is simpler, it’s going to be simpler to use. If there’s fewer voltages to adjust, then it’s going to be less complicated. It’s a whole new way to accomplish the time-of-flight technique.”
Haufler also explains that the increased sensitivity of the SCIEX X500 QTOF instrument supports faster time-to-result, allowing the operator to make data-driven decisions sooner. Time-of-flight in general is typically faster than other analyzer technologies but the SCIEX X500 QTOF can detect more ions per second – up to 100 high-quality, library-searchable spectra per second, in fact – making it faster still.
“We accomplished that by using the standard SCIEX front-end interface, which is really good at collecting and transmitting ions into the analyzer, and then we go from the interface and the other optics inside to the time-of-flight analyzer with no apertures at all,” said Haufler. “So, we don’t lose any ions in the transmission of ions from the quad part to the TOF part.”
Perhaps the most important thing to consider when choosing a mass spectrometer device is whether that instrument was built to suit your specific application needs. SCIEX offers two mass spectrometers in their X-Series QTOF System: the X500R and the X500B.
Haufler explains that the X500R was designed to analyze small molecules and low-molecular weight compounds (under 20,000 Daltons). This makes the X500R best suited to applications in food safety, environmental testing and forensics.
The X500B, on the other hand, has a higher upper mass limit and can handle biological samples like proteins and monoclonal antibodies. This instrument was purpose-built for biologics characterization to simplify and accelerate workflows.
Like other large pieces of laboratory equipment, most mass spectrometers are built to last for decades, meaning labs likely won’t have to replace their instruments because they’ve worn out. The likely catalyst for an upgrade will come from a need for greater analytical capability.
“You will be replacing your unit not because it wears out, but because your requirements for analysis have changed and the old instrument can’t do the work you need to do,” said Haufler. “A QTOF product that you buy from us today will be so much better than a QTOF product of just a few years ago that you can’t even begin to think of doing the same kind of work.”
As for the future of mass spectrometry, Haufler says that the drive to increase sensitivity while pushing detection limits down will continue to be a major goal for SCIEX and other instrument manufacturers. For now, the focus continues to be providing labs with simplified, yet powerful mass spectrometers to help them answer research questions today so they can solve complex problems tomorrow.
Interested in learning more about the latest in mass spectrometry technology? Watch SCIEX’s on-demand webinar on simplifying your research with a high resolution QTOF mass spectrometer.
What do you look for in a mass spectrometer device? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!