Sophisticated analytical chemistry still relies on the ‘human touch’

Paul Board, a Chartered Chemist and Business Development Manager for Robertson Laboratories, emphasises how the human element continues to play a key role in analytical chemistry, despite the advances made in sophisticated modern instruments.

A few years ago, I recall seeing an advert in the trade press advertising a commercial analytical laboratory. It proudly boasted that there was no human intervention between the results leaving the analytical instrument(s) and results being despatched to the client (the ad didn’t run for long). But the ultimate holy grail for the accountants at least would be a “results factory”, with samples going in to the lab at one end, through various “black box” gizmos with the results spewed out to the client at the other end (complete with invoice). This perhaps describes what would be the ultimate achievement of modern analytical instrumentation. Or would it?

Don’t get me wrong: automation and instrumentation in analytical chemistry is important. Many analytical techniques would just not be achievable without the modern instruments of today. Sensitivities and selectivities are far superior to some of the traditional “wet chemistry” techniques. Their economies and efficiencies have also allowed users of analytical data to get their results faster and far more cheaply. And lower costs obviously result in the ability to squeeze more results (say on a contaminated site investigation) out of a finite budget. An extremely important consideration when perhaps the greatest error in the chemical investigation of a site is sampling error.

But with the increasing sophistication of the analytical arsenal of instrumentation at a modern chemist’s disposal comes a very real danger. Bill Gates now has far more to do with the business than Bunsen Burners ever did. As far back as 1962, a chemist at a research laboratory in the States bemoaned: “Like it or not, the chemistry is going out of analytical chemistry.” Greater reliance on computers and software can lead to tunnel vision and blind acceptance of potentially suspect data, unless experienced chemists are employed to oversee the processes involved. And the ability to analyse certain contaminants to parts per million, parts per billion, or even parts per trillion levels can mean in reality that we “find a needle but miss a whole haystack” of other contamination. This is obviously not assisted with prescriptive lists of tests (such as the much used and abused ICRCL list). Thankfully site investigators are now embracing the more intelligent quantitative risk assessment which will not only put greater intellectual demands on consultants but also upon laboratories who will need to produce more meaningful data to feed into the models.

Clients can be assured by UKAS accredited quality systems and all the QA/QC procedures associated with them, but UKAS accreditation misses one all important point: is the method “fit for purpose”, ie fit for the particular site being investigated? This is best ascertained before the samples are analysed, or better still, before they are sent to the laboratory.

Organic puzzle

A real life example illustrates the point quite clearly: a client was investigating a large site of a previous steel rolling mill. The site was obviously contaminated with something organic, and particularly foul smelling. The original specification suggested analysis for TPH (Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons). Initial analysis suggested something else. Fortunately, there was human intervention here. A cursory examination of the chromatograms produced immediately suggested that there was something odd about the site. The amorphous and uncharacterised chromatograms did not look like any petroleum hydrocarbon products to a trained chemist’s eyes. With further research, the chemical culprit was nailed: the site was contaminated with large amounts of spent lubricant that had been used between the steel rollers. And this lubricant was based not on petroleum, but on beef tallow. Subsequent analysis using a more appropriate technique (Fatty Acid Methyl Ester analysis by GC-FID for those interested) allowed a full characterisation of the contamination.

In this case, blindly following a recipe like method would have been useless. Expert interpretation by an experienced chemist proved invaluable. Chemistry has improved the quality of all our lives, but also left a trail of industrial pollution, and to a large part, chemists were responsible. It is only right then that chemists should help to clean it up.

So next time you’re thinking of selecting a laboratory, don’t make your choice purely on size, price or amount of fancy instrumentation (although all of these are of course important): phone up and see if you can talk to a real chemist. And when you’ve selected your laboratory, use the free advice available. It could save you time, money and a whole lot of heartache.

Free technical advice on chemical analysis is available by phone or by visiting the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) facility on the Robertson Website: Click on ‘Laboratory Services’ then ‘Ask Doctor Rob.’

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie