Zare and his students worked together with researchers from Picarro, Inc., a start-up company he helped found, to create a prototype. They have successfully tested its performance by measuring carbon isotopes in different organic compounds such as methane, ethane, and propane. The bulky magnets that are the most expensive components of an isotope mass spectrometer are unnecessary in Zare's device, cutting costs while achieving an acceptable level of performance, according to Zare's team. Another advantage: the device can be used with minimal training.
Existing isotope ratio mass spectrometers can weigh as much as 1500 pounds and occupy the space of a large freezer case, such as those found an ice cream shop
Once the prototype is fully developed and commercialized, "It'll fit into the backseat of a car," Zare said. This portability can take isotopic analysis directly into the field, whether it's a doctor's office or a vineyard.
However, the team does see room for improvement.
The instrument's isotope ratio measurements are currently accurate within one to three parts per thousand, which is sufficient enough for the team to make a case for an alternative to isotope ratio mass spectrometry. However, this is still 10 to 30 times less accurate than isotope ratio mass spectrometers. The team emphasizes that their current results are preliminary and are only used to demonstrate the viability of their technique.
"My goal is to become better than and actually replace isotope ratio mass spectrometry," Zare said. He sees this as a possibility within the next 5 to 10 years.
|Contact: Dan Stober|