Special Edition: Lab Technology

Zebra Analytix looks to change the stripes of GC analysis

By Joseph James Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

Laboratory technology moving away from the lab. Picture: iStock/shironosov
Laboratory technology moving away from the lab. Picture: iStock/shironosov

Related tags Chromatography

Zebra Analytix is to launch miniature gas chromatography (GC) systems at Pittcon 2018.

The systems are based on microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) technology exclusively licensed from Virginia Tech University. MEMS based separation columns have built-in sensors and heating elements.

The patents-pending technology offers microfabricated chips capable of multi-channel separations.

The miniature GC platform can be operated by non-experts to analyze volatile compounds.

A true micro GC system

Calvin Goforth, interim CEO of Zebra Analytix, said gas chromatography is a multi-billion dollar global market with applications across numerous industries.

“It has all the same components of a normal GC system but it’s based on a chip scale device so the column is microfabricated on a microelectronic chip, it has fillers that can be used to adjust the packing density and the pillars are covered with the stationary phase,” ​he told FoodQualityNews. 

“The technology includes everything that is associated with miniaturizing the GC including the heating elements on the chip which provide for a simpler, lower cost instrument but allows there to be little thermal lag and fast heating times, so the overall processing time is lower.

“It includes things like the ability to do trap systems on the chip so you have a complete sample preparation and capture on a chip scale device. There are still some external components including the gas solder but all the fundamental components of a GC system are on the chip.”

The company, formed by VIC Technology Venture Development, currently has five staff.

Gas chromatography is used in analytical chemistry to separate and analyze volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which are gases emitted from certain solids and liquids.

GC is able to split chemical mixtures into their components and allows scientists to detect and identify VOCs in substances including air, water, plant and soil.

It is used in the pharmaceutical industry, environmental monitoring, food processing and petroleum distillation.

Current GC systems are large, bulky, stationary, costly machines requiring samples to be brought to the machine.

Primary Pittcon purpose

Pittcon will be the first time the company has shown the commercial instrument and chips.

CTO at Zebra Analytix

Agah said microGC technology at Virginia Tech MEMS Lab has gone ‘well beyond’ just miniaturizing GC.

“Zebra Analytix puts microGC in the palm of one’s hands with a vast range of applications in industry and academia. These microsystems, whether used as standalone sensors or as part of Internet of Things (IoT), will enable continuous analysis of volatile organic compounds and thereby provide unprecedented data about our health, food, space, environment, and working places.”

“Our primary purpose for Pittcon is to identify market niches and partnering opportunities where we can bring this technology to bear,”​ said Goforth.

“The product is not released yet it is in construction and tests right now. Where its advantages of low cost, small size, near real time detection are most important we are looking for commercialisation partners for different applications whether it is food production or water analytics or environmental testing.

“The key is finding the initial market niches where the advantages are so strong that people are willing to do something new and over time as more people become familiar with it the adoption picks up across a broader array of market segments. There is always a challenge with bringing any new way of doing things to market.

“Users are often not experts in GC. Our goal is to build a self-contained system that is simple to use and that is an important future for many of the market segments we are targeting.”

Chip production is being done under sub-contract at a Virginia Tech lab but the firm has had initial discussions with groups that can do larger scale once it finds targeted application segments.

Masoud Agah, company co-founder, has been named CTO of Zebra Analytix.

Dr Agah is the Virginia Microelectronics Consortium (VMEC) Professor of Engineering in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech. Upon joining in 2005 he established the Microelectromechanical Systems Laboratory - the VT MEMS Lab.

Use as an ‘electronic nose’

Goforth said what it has created is portable and faster.

“You don’t have some of the external components like the oven and it can be used for all the conventional applications of GC but also inline and process control monitoring and more advanced applications,” ​he said.

“These advanced applications will require further development but things like electronic nose so for the food industry detecting spoilage, this is an ideal technology where we can have multiple columns on a chip and detect things like spoilage in near real time and at modest cost.

“The limitations for us as a small company will be we can’t offer a huge variety of application-specific chips so we are going to be looking for market niches where people want us to develop a chip for their market niche and are interested with working with us on that.

“We will offer some general purpose columns too, in terms of performance it is good and with some of the capabilities such as sample concentration built-in it can exceed typical GC instruments in many cases.”

It could be interfaced to a mass spectrometer and the firm has the ability to do built-in detectors, said Goforth.

“The advantage of mass spec is you can get very specific results so if you are trying to distinguish between species that have similar separation profiles it may be necessary.

“In terms of a fully integrated instrument we can do built-in detectors such as photo ionization detectors (PID), it depends on what the application is. If it requires mass spec as a detector some of the advantages go away as you are going to lose your portability.”

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