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Analytical Chemistry

From the floor at Pittcon 2024

Reflections on the annual analytical chemistry conference, held in San Diego last week

by Craig Bettenhausen
March 4, 2024


A crowd of people at tables and chairs at a party, bathed in blue light. Above their heads are various aircraft.
Credit: Craig Bettenhausen/C&EN
Pittcon hosted a party Tuesday night at the San Diego Air and Space Museum, giving attendees a chance to eat, drink, socialize, and learn about aeronautical engineering and history.

For the first time in its 75-year history, Pittcon went to the US West Coast. The convention, short for the Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy, is one of the largest annual gatherings for analytical chemistry and scientific instrumentation. It was held this year in San Diego, Feb. 24–28.

This was the third time I covered Pittcon for C&EN but the first time I saw a “normal” one. The March 2020 meeting in Chicago was my first trip on the scientific instrumentation beat, and the story I wrote from that meeting was about how a respiratory virus was sweeping across the globe and attendees weren’t sure we should remain at the large gathering. In 2021 and 2022, Pittcon was some combination of canceled and virtual meeting. Pittcon 2023 was in Philadelphia, and I attended in person. But that event was small by Pittcon standards: it drew just 7,500 people or so.

Around 6,000 people came to Pittcon this year, and more than 1,000 attendees gave technical talks. About 470 vendors filled the exhibition hall, joined by a handful of nonprofits, government laboratories, and media groups, including C&EN, which has sent reporters to Pittcon for most of the show’s history.

My business-centered beat means I spent most of my time working the expo floor, which was more subdued than in previous years. The valve maker Clippard Instrument Laboratory brought an automated glassware calliope. The chromatography equipment supplier Vici Valco Instruments displayed furniture shaped like giant chromatograph injection ports. The instrument maker Jeol invited passersby to help assemble a Lego postcard as big as the bed of a pickup truck. A few spots down from that booth, the water specialist Xylem offered coffee midday and a happy hour near closing time.

But most vendors opted for simple booths consisting of a stretched fabric backdrop behind a folding table or bar-height bench. The enormous glassware, elaborate hospitality lounges, and towering structures I saw in Chicago and Philly were mostly absent this year.

Some marquee names in analytical equipment were also missing, such as Agilent Technologies, Ace Glass, and Thermo Fisher Scientific. Waters was there but focused on its TA Instruments brand of rheology analyzers and other physical measurement tools instead of its gas and liquid chromatography flagships. Bruker had a small booth without any major equipment on display.

I would guess that some companies took a cautious approach to this first foray to the West Coast. It couldn’t have been cheap for, say, Shimadzu, which brought a full team and what felt like an entire well-equipped analytical lab. Consolidation in some categories, including nuclear magnetic resonance instrument makers and contract research labs, may also be changing the competitive calculus.

I don’t mean to cast the meeting in a negative light. The conversations were rich and useful. The people I met were diverse in their demographics and the roles they play in chemistry. I could have happily spent additional days soaking in the science. Luckily, I was joined in San Diego by my C&EN colleagues Laurel Oldach and Mitch Jacoby, who were able to take in more presentations and posters.

“I was struck by the variety of research areas the conference covered. I went to sessions on single-cell mass spectrometry (a cool field that seems like it’ll soon take off), analytical chemistry challenges for new drug modalities (which you can imagine have big financial impacts for pharma companies), measuring microbiomes (tons of great stories in both foods and natural products), and the keynote on sustainable nanomaterials by Omowunmi Sadik,” Oldach said in a wrap-up conversation we had virtually on our separate trips home.

Pittcon 2024 president Melinda Stephens, a chemistry professor at Geneva College, said at a press conference on Monday that the analytical chemistry world is in the process of reorganizing itself around applications instead of techniques. The technical program reflected that shift, with tracks on psychoactive substances, pharmaceuticals, life sciences, nanoscience, energy and environment, and professional development.

That change was also visible in the user interfaces on new instruments launched at the show, which emphasized simple controls, preset methods, and integrated error checking. Company representatives told me they see a demand for analytical chemists to be able to hop between instrument types instead of specializing in, for example, electrospray mass spectrometry.

The tools and structures of analytical science are changing, and Pittcon is doing what scientists do: trying things, testing ideas, building on successes. I look forward to next year’s meeting in Boston, where C&EN will continue to track this critical part of the global chemistry enterprise.


This story was updated on March 15, 2024, to correct the number of attendees at Pittcon in 2023 and 2024. Attendance in 2023 was about 7,500, not 9,000. In 2024 it was roughly 6,000, not 15,500.



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