Two scientists at Furman University have been awarded a three-year, $1-million grant from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation to create a prototype of a portable, lightweight mass spectrometer for analyzing chemicals in the air.
Mac Gilliland, assistant professor of chemistry and Mary Elizabeth Anderson, professor of chemistry, will work with engineers and scientists at 908 Devices, a mass spec manufacturer in Boston. At least a dozen Furman undergraduate students will also work on the project, giving them experience in chemistry, device manufacturing and commercialization that few students at undergraduate institutions have.
“We are extremely grateful to the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation for this award,” said Gilliland, the project leader and primary researcher on the grant. He has extensive experience in mass spectrometry, or mass spec. “This award affords us the chance to do excellent science and technology development, and it gives our students hands-on opportunities to do research and interact with industry in ways students at many universities are unable to do. I’m excited to get to work with our students.”
Mass spectrometry precisely identifies chemical compounds by their molecular weight. The instruments are like molecular scales, using electric and magnetic fields to “weigh” molecules, Gilliland says. Beckman granted two other awards for the design of different mass spec devices. Both were at large public research universities: the University of Wisconsin and the University of Washington.
Mass spec instruments are common in research, medicine and a variety of other settings for drug development, cancer screening, forensics and many more applications. However, mass specs are often limited to laboratory settings because of the power requirements and complexity of the systems.
The award criteria call for the development of an instrument small enough to fit in a backpack, or smaller, that measures low levels of lightweight atmospheric compounds, like volatile organic chemicals, or VOCs, which include benzene, toluene and xylene, that can cause health hazards. Making an instrument that meets those criteria and is affordable and portable has been a major hurdle.
Before analysis by mass spec, the compounds must be captured from the air. That’s where Anderson’s work comes in. She specializes in metal organic frameworks, or MOFs, nanoporous materials that act as chemical sponges.
“Part of our approach to detecting these VOCs is to tailor our MOF ‘sponges’ with nanopores that trap molecules of interest, separating them from the rest of the gases in the atmosphere,” Anderson said. “This will be especially important because VOCs are often present at concentrations around one out of every one billion molecules.”
The potential applications for the Furman mass spec include air monitoring in industrial, hazard, and environmental scenarios. For example, the technology could detect a leak in a factory before it becomes dangerous or to monitor emissions from pine trees as the climate changes.
The goal is to have a working instrument by December 2026. The team from Furman will work with engineers from 908 Devices to build a workable model before finalizing the design and making it smaller. It’s likely that intellectual property could be developed for new devices or processes that will be invented, which could lead to licensing agreements in the future.
Furman has a long history of success earning awards from The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation. The university has continually received competitive undergraduate funding since the Beckman Scholars program began in 1999.
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