Bringing the Gold Standard to the Front Line

Clandestine laboratories are just one evolving threat that first responders face at unexpected times. As this and other types of threats evolve, so must the technology to monitor, detect, and analyze these seen and unseen dangers. High-pressure mass spectrometry is one such technology that is helping first responders perform these tasks in real time while in the field.

When arriving at the scene, first responders are typically met with more questions than answers, so the right tools are crucial when piecing together the puzzle presented. Although there is an ongoing need for laboratory analysis, the unfortunate increase of extremist activity, both domestically and abroad, has highlighted the ever-present need to keep evolving technology for field use to protect first responders and communities. Portable tools at the scene enable responders to quickly monitor for harmful hazards as they work, allowing them to quickly move through rooms and buildings to conduct analysis on seen and unseen targets and to discern illicit activity. 

Despite breakthroughs over the years, which have placed a breadth of new chemical analysis devices directly at the scene, capability gaps still exist. Today, threats are becoming more advanced and unexpected, from the use of commercial materials to make homemade and improvised explosive devices, to the latest developments in chemical warfare. As a result, there is an ever-increasing need to create robust and evolving tools that can keep pace with the dangers first responders now encounter, which are beyond what they have been accustomed to combating. They need tools that can keep pace with these evolving threats and better assemble the puzzle pieces when they arrive at the scene.

Unshackling the Gold Standard  

Mass spectrometry is considered the “gold standard” for laboratory analysis across a wide range of industries and applications including safety and security, food science, biotechnology, environmental hazards, and petrochemicals. Traditional mass spectrometers are expensive, bulky, power hungry, and fragile. Additionally, because they are designed to accommodate a wide variety of needs, their complexity limits their use and maintenance to a small group of highly trained professionals. 

Realizing the need to evolve the applicability of this important analysis technique, several companies have explored bringing mass spectrometry out of the central laboratory and into the hotzone. For example, there are transportable instruments that still have the size and weight of laboratory systems (around 150 lbs.), but are sufficiently hardened to be movable. In addition, a few person-portable systems, or “luggables” as they are often referred, have been introduced within the last 20 years enabling some mass spectrometry analysis in the field.  

The introduction of these luggable mass spectrometry instruments into the safety and security industry was an undeniable step forward and an important demonstration of demand for analysis in the field. Despite these advances, widespread adoption remains limited by the remaining complexity and relative fragility of these implementations. However, with a new technique called high-pressure mass spectrometry™ (HPMS), mass spectrometry can now be used for truly handheld operation. 

Making a Difference  

Quite literally, HPMS refers to mass spectrometry being performed at much higher pressures – 10,000 times the pressure of conventional mass spectrometry – and, therefore, utilizes significantly less vacuum. This high-pressure approach has made handheld, portable mass spectrometers that perform at the push of the button possible. This is achieved through the miniaturization of the molecular traps used to analyze the input, which have been reduced from the size of a large office printer to the size of a tangerine through much smaller vacuum pumps, ionizers, detectors, and electronics overall. At under five pounds for a fully functioning handheld system, this is a game changer for the safety and security industry: no more need to send samples out for testing, then awaiting the results.

HPMS expands the first responder toolkit to include chemical and precursor materialentification and detection capabilities beyond traditional tools. HPMS devices are purpose-built to fill technology gaps and meet the unmet needs of today’s response mission. Handheld mass spectrometry complements the capabilities of other fielded tools by adding focused chemical analysis capabilities to the survey mission. Devices powered by HPMS have multiphase capabilities that enable rapid chemical analysis on materials from surface residues to ambient and headspace gases.

The selectivity of mass spectrometry allows HPMS devices to detect low-level quantities of critical threats with incredibly low false alarm rates even among myriad interferents that plague other less selective technologies. As a result, civilian, federal, and military responders now have expandedentification and detection capabilities for chemical warfare agents, toxic industrial materials, and precursors at the point of action. 

Filling Capability Gaps

The clandestine laboratory is a common scenario where first responders would use an HPMS device and provides a better understanding of how HPMS works in the field. In this scenario, the number of unknown threats is abundant. When approaching the situation, responders need the right tools toentify potential threats – from drugs to chemical weapons to explosives – and time is critical. The right tools enable responders to quickly and safely monitor the air for harmful airborne hazards and to conduct analysis on seen and unseen targets to discern threats and protect lives.

Although presently fielded tools are critical to the first responder toolkit, each has limitations. For example, while working their way through a clandestine laboratory, responders use a device powered by ion-mobility spectrometry (IMS), which has been successfully used to give responders early warning of the presence of potentially harmful chemicals and explosives. This technology has its limitations, though, as it suffers from frequent false positive measurements, meaning it alarms for serious threats such as chemical weapons that are not actually present. These frequent false alarms are notoriously triggered by benign and common substances – such as diesel fumes, cologne, or household cleaning products – and can cause responders to ignore the notifications, which may have serious consequences.

HPMS technology fills the gap with devices that are selective enough to decipher dangerous chemicals from similar, benign ones, and notify responders only when threats are present. The dramatically increased selectivity of HPMS over IMS allows for a much broader list of target materials and forentification of threats without false alarms, even when background or interferent compounds are present.

As first responders penetrate a suspected hotzone and IMS devices alarm, an HPMS device provides fast confirmation whether there is, in fact, a threatening chemical in the atmosphere. Once the suspicious laboratory has been safely entered, HPMS devices can be used to further secure the site by analyzing headspace vapors, suspicious residues, and a selection of bulk materials to determine the threat level. The key to filling this capability gap is gathering fast actionable intelligence on whether the team needs to be concerned with the worst potential threats.

The need for more diverse technology in the field is being driven by the increased risk and varying degree of CBRNE threats that require immediate and accurate detection. In the pursuit of new technologies for CBRNE and hazardous materials detection, the powerful capabilities of HPMS provide the speed, power, and accuracy required for today’s first responders, civilian support teams, and military personnel at the point of need.

Chris Petty

Dr. Chris Petty is co-founder and vice president of business development at Boston, Massachusetts, based 908 Devices. He is an executive with over 21 years of experience in the analytical instrumentation industry. He has been responsible for development of new markets and market expansions introducing product platforms in numerous high growth acquired businesses at Thermo Fisher Scientific. He has more than 25-refereed papers and conference presentations, has won R&D 100 and Frost & Sullivan awards for his products, and an American Marketing Association award for interactive promotional campaigns. He received a Ph.D. in Chemistry and B.Sc. in Physics from Southampton University in the United Kingdom with industrial sponsorship from PerkinElmer.



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