Changing chromatographer

Thermo Labsystems' Peter D'Arcy on NWW's use of the Atlas system

1997 saw the official opening of North West Waters' (NWW) Lingley Mere Laboratory near Warrington, Cheshire. Recognised as one of the most advanced in Europe, its scientists use state-of-the-art technology to not only test drinking water but also the quality of the wastewater the company returns to rivers and the sea. Samples are analysed 24 hours a day, every day to ensure that water meets the highest standards and the lab currently handles more than 250,000 samples and more than 2.5M determinands each year.

Data monitor
Analysts are engaged in inorganic, organic and microbiological analyses, delivering quality control support for clean and wastewater treatment using a range of techniques.

Eighteen analysts work in the organics laboratory at Lingley Mere conducting analyses on the levels of organic matter in:

  • drinking water,
  • sewage - monitoring all stages of treatment,
  • effluent and trade discharges - checking compliance of business effluent with agreed limits,
  • sludges,
  • soils - monitoring soil characteristics to ensure the most cost-effective pipe-work is laid to eliminate risk of contamination.

Until the early 1990s, NWW operated three separate organics laboratories as part of its analytical laboratory function, located near Manchester, Preston and Warrington. A decision to centralise all laboratory operations at the purpose-built Lingley Mere laboratory involved harmonising different working practices, equipment and computing solutions.

A key part of that work involved harmonising with Xchrom from Thermo Labsystems. There were a number of reasons for this:

  • the system was Unix-based - which complied with NWW's IT strategy,
  • compatibility with its in-house written laboratory information management system (LIMS) called ChemLMS. This link allows workbooks to be the created in the LIMS and accepted by the CDS,
  • Xchrom was the most flexible system with an ability to satisfy all sampling techniques,
  • the system offered a high degree of instrument control,
  • the system was able to adapt and grow as new instruments and methodologies were introduced,

By mid 1997, year 2000 compliance was becoming a key strategic issue at NWW. The operating system of the HP/Unix-based Xchrom version 1.5.1 was not compliant, so a migration to Xchrom 2.1 was considered. While version 2.1 was compliant, HP-UX version 10.20 was much more memory intensive and response times were severely affected. Buying more memory was an option but the cost looked prohibitive against switching to the NT-based Atlas chromatography data system.

Atlas is a 32-bit chromatography data system, developed and supported by Thermo Labsystems, which believes the system's strength lies in its adaptability to laboratory workflow.

Atlas was developed for the Intel-Windows 95, Windows 98 and Windows NT environments and is compatible with Microsoft Office. It is designed for use in fully networked, secure and regulated environments and is scaleable from single instrument workstations to full multi-channel, multi-user client/server implementations. Its development and ease-of-use has benefited from a joint application development project, administered by Thermo Labsystems and involving chromatographers from around the world.

Following a review of the available systems and an intensive evaluation, the final decision was taken to move to Atlas in November 1998. This prompted an ambitious implementation schedule with the aim of being live by March 1999, within NWW's corporate deadline for year 2000 compliance. The implementation project included:

  • l the procurement and installation of new PCs and the associated networking,
  • file transfer sub-project - this involved consultancy from Thermo Labsystems to modify the interface between Atlas and the LIMS. New file transfer protocols were written to cover file names, sample IDs, standards, etc, to eliminate manual transcription and the associated transcription errors,
  • live testing of instruments - this involved comparing results with those from Xchrom,
  • training - this was conducted for two users and two system managers.

The migration itself was completed over a single weekend. Analysts logged off from Xchrom on the Friday afternoon and arrived for work on the following Monday morning for their first experience of using Atlas live.

NWW's organics lab currently has 20 instruments (a variety of GC and LC/HPLC) interfaced to Atlas via six chromatography servers.

cutting time
From system acceptance onwards, there was general satisfaction both in terms of the user experience and Atlas' performance. Due to Atlas' client/server architecture, result processing was more than three times faster. In a worst case scenario, with a high number of Xchrom users on-line at any one time, result processing could take as long as five minutes. With Atlas this was reduced to a matter of seconds.

Although NWW analysts had become very familiar with Xchrom over many years and considered it user-friendly, users were said to have found Atlas much easier to operate. This was partly due to the Windows 95/98 interface. Within a couple of hours of it being in production, users were starting runs, inputting analyses and getting results. NWW found from the outset that training users to operate the system was straight forward and did not take too long.

This ease of use also extended to reporting. Paul Tonge, scientist and Atlas system manager in laboratory services at Lingley Mere, explains: "Within a month of Atlas being operational, users were creating their own reports to their own requirements without any input from me. This contrasted sharply with the previous situation with Xchrom, where the only reports being produced were those written by myself. Users found the Windows-based Atlas Report Manager very easy to use."

From a system management perspective, the NT file server offers improved system security. Atlas uses the standard Windows NT and 2000 security features as its foundation, adding its own application level security layer. This allows each Atlas user, or groups of users, to have their own Atlas command level security access defined.

In system administration and problem resolution, Atlas does not require the expensive specialist technical skills. There were other benefits, as Tonge explains: "Atlas versatility was another attraction. It handles chromatograms of both clean and wastewater very well. Another strength is its ability to grow with our business and respond to satisfy new regulatory directives."

As new directives are issued by the regulators methods can be adopted using an Atlas template to generate the new analysis. A recent example at NWW was the development of a totally automated method to meet new DWI requirements on pesticides and herbicides. This method however fell short of meeting the directive for all eight determinands and a second new method was developed using a GC connected to Atlas for triallates and chlorpyriphos. A series of calibration standards were analysed and Atlas was used for quantitation. The new method was found to fully comply with the directive.

The emergence of novel techniques such as flash chromatography is a development in which Lingley Mere's analysts are taking a keen interest. Reducing sample throughput time from 30 minutes to 2 minutes has been anticipated in the future.

Such a technique would involve using different methods on the same GC, managed by Atlas. This would mean less instruments and reduced maintenance, thereby reducing operating costs. The flexibility of Atlas is also seen as an important asset to NWW in its drive to attract increasing levels of commercial work. Currently, 90% of the samples it handles are for internal customers. Atlas should help in the laboratory's responsiveness to meet customer requirements for rapid and compliant sample processing. Lingley Mere offers complete sampling and analysis packages, one-off analysis and more extensive surveys. Its clients include a number of leading pharmaceutical companies, bottled water suppliers and organisations with a private bore hole.

In July 2000, NWW Lingley Mere migrated to Atlas 2000. Paul Tonge cites the more advanced Report Manager functionality as a key reason for this move. Atlas 2000 offers more flexibility in report layout and allows users to report just the main peaks of interest which is intended to allow easier analysis.


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