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What’s in an Oil Drop?
By Kristen Coyne
Like so many scientific acronyms, this one is gibberish to most lay people. The translation – Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance – probably wouldn’t help them much either. But there’s a lot going on in those five little letters, particularly at the MagLab, a world leader in the field and home to the man who co-invented the technique and, more than anybody else in the past three-plus decades, is responsible for the great advances in chemistry that have been made through its use.
FT-ICR is a very special type of mass spectrometer (a machine that measures the mass of atoms and molecules). In fact, this extremely powerful tool offers much more accurate and precise measuring than any other type of mass spectrometer (MS for short).
Why measure the mass of atoms and molecules in a substance? To find out what it’s made of – which atoms, which molecules and how much of each. This information can speak volumes about the origin and properties of a substance.
The field of FT-ICR is one of the greatest strengths of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory. For one, our facilities are unrivaled. Our ICR Program includes five FT-ICR mass spectrometers, including the most powerful one in the world, which uses a superconducting magnet with a field of 14.5 tesla. Tesla is a measurement of the strength of a magnetic field: To put that in perspective, 1 tesla is equal to 20,000 times the Earth's magnetic field. The lab is currently building a magnet of even greater strength – 21 tesla – due to come online in 2013.
Before amassing the hardware, though, FSU started with superb talent. The MagLab’s team of experts is headed up by ICR Program Director Alan Marshall, a legend in the field. Along with Melvin Comisarow of the University of British Columbia in Canada, Marshall invented the FT-ICR back in 1973. The feat dates back to 1931, when the ion cyclotron, a device that accelerates negatively or positively charged particles (ions) in a magnetic field, was invented. The tool was adapted to create the ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometer a few decades later. Fourier transform (a mathematical algorithm that converts signals detected over time into a spectrum of usable data about, say, particle mass) has been around for centuries. But Marshall and Comisarow were the first to put two and two together (or rather, FT and ICR together) and create an amazingly powerful device. These machines are used for all types of research, from studying how drugs and cells interact to analyzing the more than 30,000 chemical substances in a single heavy petroleum sample. No wonder that more than 650 mass-spectrometry instruments based on Marshall’s three patents have been installed worldwide, with about 50 new ones going online every year.
FT-ICR is the best technique by far for analyzing complex molecules mixed together in a fluid – which is how molecules are often found. But before we launch into a blow-by-blow of how this works, let’s first address how it matters.
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