ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- A sampling device smaller than the tip of a fingernail promises big results for detecting and analyzing trace chemicals.
The tool, developed by the Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories, is a super miniaturized version of a traditional preconcentrator used to collect sample gases for analysis. The active area of the device is only two millimeters by two millimeters.
Already part of Sandia's initiative to build a hand-held "chemistry laboratory," it potentially can be integrated with other micro chemical detectors, including a mass spectrometer or an ion mobility spectrometer.
The tiny size will allow chemical testing using small hand-held instruments, eliminating the need to send samples to a large laboratory. This would be beneficial, for example, to a soldier in battle who needs to know immediately what chemical he is encountering. He doesn't have a laboratory handy and doesn't have hours to wait for an analysis.
"Because it can work with different types of microanalytical systems, this device is receiving a lot of attention," says researcher Ron Manginell, who has been working on the preconcentrator for the past three years. "It's small, uses minute amounts of power, is extremely portable, and is inexpensive to produce -- all making it very interesting to both industry and the military."
A traditional preconcentrator consists of a cigarette-size stainless steel tube packed with an adsorbent material. A pump forces the sample gas through the tube where it is adsorbed into the material. The steel tube then goes into a benchtop thermal desorber and is heated to 200 degrees C.
The gas escapes from the tube for analysis by a detector such as a benchtop gas chromatograph system that determines the chemical's nature. Manginell says this traditional system is bulky, slow, and must be done in a laboratory setting -- not at all practical for field testing.