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Volume 86 Issue 12 | pp. 51-55
Issue Date: March 24, 2008

Cover Stories

Pittcon Returns To The 'Big Easy'

Annual instrument show convenes in partially recovered New Orleans
Department: ACS News
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A good Year
Pittcon 2008 registration was down slightly from last year but still respectable, approaching 20,000.
Credit: Mitch Jacoby/C&EN (all)
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A good Year
Pittcon 2008 registration was down slightly from last year but still respectable, approaching 20,000.
Credit: Mitch Jacoby/C&EN (all)

THE PITTSBURGH CONFERENCE on Analytical Chemistry & Applied Spectroscopy (Pittcon), one of the world's largest scientific meetings, rolled into town in its usual big way early this month. For 2008, that town was New Orleans, and the visit was belated. Pittcon was originally scheduled to be there in 2007, but it moved to Chicago when conference organizers decided that New Orleans needed an extra year to recover from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when most of the city was flooded.

The storm that all but drowned the "Big Easy" three years ago was little evident to meeting attendees staying near the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where Pittcon 2008 was held, largely because that area is high enough in elevation to have been spared from flooding. Thousands of people, however, sought shelter at the convention center during the storm, and some died there. "Damage inside was extensive," said Pittcon 2008 President John A. Varine. "The interior of the center was completely redone." Hotels near the convention center were likewise cleaned up, when necessary, and seemed to be operating at full tilt during the meeting.

"We were concerned that people would be apprehensive about coming to New Orleans for the conference, but we have gotten no negative feedback at all" from attendees, said Varine, a former public school chemistry teacher and science department head who is currently on the faculty of the chemistry and physics department at California University of Pennsylvania. "We've had representatives in the city eight times since the hurricane and resulting flooding, and every time the condition of the convention center and downtown area has been better and better."

Pittcon officials have made major efforts to help New Orleans recover. Two years ago, the conference donated $45,000 to recovery funds for New Orleans convention service workers. Last year, it purchased $125,000 in science equipment and supplies for New Orleans high school science departments. And in 2008, "we will make a similar contribution to science programs in New Orleans schools," Varine said.

Pittcon's annual Science Week program also benefited the beleaguered city. This year's program included 20 teacher workshops for approximately 120 New Orleans-area elementary, middle, and high school teachers. Teachers who attended received equipment grants of up to $500 to purchase materials and supplies.

Varine and other Pittcon officials who organize the meeting each year are volunteers. "All of our proceeds, after we pay our expenses, are funneled into science outreach activities," Varine said. "Those go all over the country, not just in Pittsburgh or New Orleans. This support is tremendously beneficial to science education at all levels."

business end
This quadrupole probe assembly for mass spectrometers is made by Extrel.
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business end
This quadrupole probe assembly for mass spectrometers is made by Extrel.

According to tentative figures available the week after the meeting, total registration for Pittcon 2008 was 19,543, down about 12% from last year's Chicago meeting. This wasn't totally a surprise because "Chicago is typically our highest attendance city," Varine said. The highest ever conference registration was 34,079, at Pittcon 1996 in Chicago.

Accounting in part for this year's reduced registration is a drop in the number of exhibitor representatives to a tentative 8,863 this year, compared with 10,338 in 2007. "That's a trend we've seen for a number of years," Varine said. "Companies are just sending fewer people. But our conferee registration in recent years has generally been rising."

This conference's technical program featured more than 2,200 technical presentations, including several symposia on topics of local interest, such as the archaeology of the French explorer La Salle's ship, La Belle, which sunk off the coast of Texas in 1684, and the environmental impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and the surrounding area. Other highlights included a panel discussion on global warming, a session on analytical instrumentation for biofuels R&D, and two symposia (on atomic and vibrational spectroscopy) to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Society for Applied Spectroscopy.

The technical program also included a new feature, Lab 2015, a panel discussion and poster session on new types of instrumentation that are not ready for commercial introduction but that could become important. "It gives our conferees and our exhibiting companies a look at what's ahead in the future in the field of laboratory science," Varine said.

This was the second year in a row that Pittcon hosted the ACS Division of Analytical Chemistry's spring program, which normally would have convened at the spring ACS national meeting. "The Analytical Division decided to avoid conflicts for its attendees by partnering with us," Varine said. On March 3, the division's executive committee voted to continue to program together with Pittcon for the next three years.

Organizers expanded the series of conferee networking sessions initiated at Pittcon 2007 from eight to 27 topics this year. At these sessions, "we invite interested conferees to sit down in an informal situation and talk with one another about common problems and solutions they've encountered," Varine said.

Each year at Pittcon, Centcom, ACS's advertising arm, sponsors a breakfast for industry leaders, and this year was no exception (C&EN, March 10, page 5). John LaMattina, former president of Pfizer Global R&D, told attendees that recent widely reported declines in pharmaceutical R&D productivity can be attributed in part to forces beyond the control of the drug industry, such as increased government requirements for clinical trial data. The industry "is adapting to these changes," LaMattina said, "and things will get better." And Magid Abou-Gharbia, senior vice president and department head for Chemical & Screening Sciences at Wyeth Research, said his company and others are increasingly using the type of advanced technology introduced at Pittcon to discover truly innovative drugs.

Show Floor
This year's exposition occupied nearly 2,500 booth spaces.
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Show Floor
This year's exposition occupied nearly 2,500 booth spaces.

FOR THE DEVELOPERS and manufacturers of those technologies, the analytical and life sciences instrument markets were generally healthy in 2007, according to business analyst Tanya Samazan, managing editor of Instrument Business Outlook, a newsletter on those markets. They grew "in the high single digits last year, helped in part by the weak U.S. dollar, which benefited U.S. companies selling overseas," Samazan told C&EN. "The economic strength of the metals industry has driven demand for atomic spectroscopy techniques, while high oil prices have fueled investment by the petrochemicals industry." This trend, she continued, has benefited sales of gas chromatography (GC) and GC-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) instruments. MS and liquid chromatography-MS (LC-MS) continue to be major drivers because of food and environmental testing, especially in Asia, and life sciences applications, she added.

Demand for instrumentation used in life sciences research is mixed, Samazan said. "More cautious investments by pharmaceutical companies, as well as some market saturation, have slowed growth for segments of the laboratory automation and molecular spectroscopy markets." However, other life sciences techniques, such as in vivo animal imaging and cell analysis, are strong, she noted.

Lawrence S. Schmid, president and chief executive officer of Strategic Directions International, Los Angeles, which publishes Instrument Business Outlook, noted that in terms of future prospects, "recession fears and exchange rates appear to top the concerns of many suppliers in the analytical and life sciences instrument industry." But he said he currently doubts that economic downturns would have major adverse effects on the industry—"unless, of course, they are deep and widespread."

The combination of the high euro and slowing European economy "suggest the market in Europe will be soft this year," Schmid added, and "the market in the U.S. will likely be moribund for the first half. But the second half of 2008 should be much better, and life will be good for instrument vendors overall, especially in 2009."

Food safety testing, environmental analysis, and security applications "are important driving forces for many industries, especially spectroscopy firms," he said. "Food companies and biotech firms are now rivaling pharmaceutical companies for interest from chromatography suppliers."

Industry analyst Stefan Fritsch, editor of Instrumenta, a newsletter covering global markets for analytical instrumentation, commented that the weak U.S. dollar "makes U.S. products more competitive outside the U.S., a trend that worries quite a few companies that report in euros and pounds. About one-third of the world market for instruments is the U.S. market, and U.S. customers might now think twice before buying European or Japanese instruments" because the declining dollar has made them much more expensive.

Attention Grabber
An Innov-X Systems display wields two handheld X-ray fluorescence spectrometers.
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Attention Grabber
An Innov-X Systems display wields two handheld X-ray fluorescence spectrometers.

Fritsch noted that "a company like Thermo Fisher Scientific, because it's so big with an international mix [of locations], can give and take with its pricing across the globe. So it might have a better ability to adjust its prices to avoid negative effects on its business from the declining dollar. But a smaller company purely based in Europe might now find it very hard to adjust its prices downward to make its instruments competitive in the market and attract U.S. buyers."

Instrumenta reported in its March 2008 issue on how instrument companies believe they may be affected by a U.S. recession. "Certainly, most of their financial outlooks were down," he said. "These companies were generally very optimistic last year, but the last quarter had some effect on their outlooks."

On the positive side, Fritsch noted that a strong potential growth area for the instrument industry is "anything having to do with border control or homeland security—handheld, portable, or nonportable instrumentation to detect explosives, metals, and weapons. There has been growth in that area for the past five years."

PITTCON'S EXPOSITION is one of the prime venues where new products that can fuel such growth are introduced. Pittcon officials were pleased that the number of booth spaces at this year's exposition was higher than it was in Chicago last year and in Orlando the year before. For 2008, the show hosted 1,110 exhibiting companies in 2,457 booth spaces. The highest these numbers have ever gone at Pittcon were 1,260 companies in Orlando in 2003 and 3,304 booths in New Orleans in 2000.

Each year, C&EN asks academic experts to evaluate the instruments introduced at the exposition. Our adviser in the MS area this year, mass spectrometrist Vicki H. Wysocki of the University of Arizona, Tucson, said one trend for 2008 was the introduction of instruments with "more user-friendly and higher performance tissue-imaging capabilities."

For example, Bruker introduced matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization (MALDI) imaging capabilities on its apex-ultra Fourier transform mass spectrometer. According to the company, the new system is "suited for tissue imaging of small molecules, including drugs from animals dosed at therapeutic levels."

Thermo Fisher now provides a MALDI source and tissue-imaging software on its LTQ XL and LTQ Orbitrap mass spectrometers, Wysocki said. The company notes that "this platform makes it easier for scientists to analyze whole-tissue, biological, and polymer samples without extensive sample preparation."

Thermo Fisher added electron transfer dissociation (ETD) to its LTQ Orbitrap hybrid mass spectrometers this year, "providing more complete fragmentation capabilities" and facilitating the localization and identification of protein posttranslational modifications. "Related electron capture dissociation technology is already available on Fourier transform MS instruments," but this is the first commercial implementation of ETD on the high resolution, high mass accuracy Orbitrap systems, Wysocki said. According to Thermo Fisher, the new system eases definitive protein characterization and minimizes sample preparation.

Another new product that caught Wysocki's eye was Waters' Synapt MS system, its current implementation of quadrupole time-of-flight (QTOF) MS. The Synapt MS differentiates ions by charge and mass, whereas a more sophisticated QTOF instrument introduced earlier, the Synapt High Definition MS (HDMS), allows ion differentiation by size and shape, as well as by charge and mass. "The Synapt HDMS is the only ion mobility instrument on the market that can be used for large biological noncovalent complexes," Wysocki said, and the new Synapt MS provides an upgrade pathway to it at lower initial cost.

Chemistry professor Robert M. Corn of the University of California, Irvine, was C&EN's adviser on molecular spectroscopy new products. Many new instruments in the molecular spectroscopy area this year "were either minor upgrades or additional intermediate instruments that filled out existing molecular spectroscopy product lines," Corn said.

One class of instruments (not necessarily new products) that he found impressive at this year's Pittcon exposition are infrared (IR) microscopes such as Bruker's Hyperion, Varian's UMA systems, Jasco's IMV 4000, and Thermo Fisher's Nicolet Continuµm. "On the whole, IR microscopes have come a long way in terms of sensitivity, spatial resolution, and speed for the generation of 2-D and 3-D chemical information based on spatially resolved Fourier transform IR spectra," he said. Corn said he and postdocs with him at the meeting "were impressed with the quality of the FTIR imaging data obtainable now with these instruments, using either single-element MCTs [mercury cadmium telluride detectors], linear array MCTs, or focal plane array detectors."

"Another instrument that looked interesting" at the show, Corn said, was the ReporteR, a palm-sized, 11-oz Raman spectrometer by DeltaNu. According to the company, ReporteR is the world's smallest spectroscopic system for rapid identification of explosives, plastics, industrial chemicals, and illicit drugs. "We were impressed with the small size of the device," Corn said. "It almost looked like an ear thermometer."

In atomic spectroscopy as well, "there was very little that was new," said chemistry professor Joseph Sneddon of McNeese State University, Lake Charles, La., who evaluated new products in this area. "Atomic spectroscopy has reached a high level of maturity, and a technological breakthrough would likely be needed for something new to be developed," he said. "Most companies exhibited instrumentation that was readily available prior to the meeting, with some incremental improvements in presentation, better software, and improved technical support. Several commented that instrument costs had stabilized or even decreased in some cases."

LC Meets MS
An exhibitor demonstrates a nanoAcquity UltraPerformance Liquid Chromatography separation system (right) linked to a Synapt MS quadrupole time-of-flight mass spectrometer.
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LC Meets MS
An exhibitor demonstrates a nanoAcquity UltraPerformance Liquid Chromatography separation system (right) linked to a Synapt MS quadrupole time-of-flight mass spectrometer.

IN CHROMATOGRAPHY, C&EN's gurus for 2008 were chemistry professor John G. Dorsey of Florida State University, editor of the Journal of Chromatography A, and assistant professor of chemistry Karyn M. Usher of West Chester University of Pennsylvania, a former student of Dorsey's. They commented together in a statement written for C&EN, and their opinion was similar to Corn's and Sneddon's.

"With apologies to William Shakespeare, it was much ado about nothing" regarding new chromatography products at Pittcon 2008, they wrote. "Well, maybe not nothing. But not too much new, exciting chromatographic equipment was introduced at Pittcon this year."

In GC, Agilent introduced a cryogen-free GC-GC instrument, they noted. A cryogen is a liquid medium that cools samples to very low temperatures, and GC-GC is a multidimensional chromatographic technique that, according to Agilent, "can substantially increase peak capacity and resolving power, which is highly useful with complex mixtures such as petroleum, fuels, fragrance, and environmental samples." According to Dorsey and Usher, "Development of a useful cryogen-free modulator to focus and transfer peaks from one GC column to a second should significantly reduce operating costs and improve the convenience of the technique."

"In LC, most vendors were offering only incremental improvements over existing technology," Dorsey and Usher noted. "Fast analysis is the mantra, and LC equipment vendors are touting speed" by reducing instrument dwell volumes, which limit the turnaround time between gradient methods; by increasing the speed of data acquisition; and by offering low-carryover auto-injectors, which help eliminate unexpected ghost peaks and help prevent incorrect results. "Perhaps next year we will start to see the introduction of LC-LC instrumentation," they speculated.

Dorsey and Usher also liked the Nlisis Meltfit One, a device that provides an effective new way to couple chromatographic capillary columns in GC, GC-GC, capillary zone electrophoresis, and other capillary separation techniques. "Using a combination of heat and air pressure, the device uses a small glass tube to establish a zero-dead-volume and leak-free seal between two capillary ends," they explained.

The Meltfit One received the silver (second place) Editors' Award at this year's Pittcon. The Editors' Awards are decided by a vote of journalists covering Pittcon. C&EN attended the Editors' Awards meeting at Pittcon 2008 but did not vote.

Two instruments made by Bruker AXS won the other two Editors' Awards this year. The gold (first place) award winner was the Smart X2S, a benchtop X-ray system for automated small-molecule 3-D structure determination. According to the company, "Traditional X-ray systems for 3-D structure determination are floor-standing, require significant infrastructure, and typically are installed in specialist X-ray crystallography centers." The Smart X2S, which is relatively small and inexpensive, "takes small-molecule structure determination to the next level of convenience by automating the previously difficult aspects of X-ray structure determination, from sample loading and alignment through data collection all the way to the mathematical structure solution."

Bruker AXS also received the bronze (third place) Editors' Award for another benchtop instrument, the S2 Picofox TXRF (total-reflection X-ray fluorescence) spectrometer for trace elemental analysis. A company press release noted that "TXRF previously was limited to floor-standing, large lab systems for semiconductor and coatings metrology. The S2 Picofox was made for the analytical laboratory and for field use, thus enabling TXRF ultra-high-sensitivity elemental analysis in clinical, nutritional, environmental, and mining applications for the first time."

Next year's Pittcon meeting will provide an opportunity for other new instruments and a few more Editors' Awards. For 2009, Pittcon revisits the "Windy City." "We will return to Chicago to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Pittcon," Varine said. "It's scheduled for March 8-13 in McCormick Place."

 
 
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