Q&A with Herbert H. Hill, Regents Professor, Washington State University
Tell us a bit about your background and your history with Ching
In 1975 I graduated with a Ph.D. in chemistry from Dalhousie University of Halifax and the following year I joined the chemistry faculty at Washington State University (WSU).
In the years that followed I have enjoyed some great professional highlights, including a 10-month fellowship from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science for research at Kyoto University and then in 1989, being awarded the Keene P. Dimick award in Chromatography for my work in chromatographic detection methods.
My passion always has and continues to be in chromatography, chemical measurement and ion mobility spectrometry (IMS).
In 1992, Ching joined as a student at Washington State University and with a shared passion for IMS we have continued a fruitful working relationship way past his graduation in 1997.
Talk about the history of the technology
I’m perfectly placed to answer this as I am probably one of the oldest people working in IMS today! It all started back when I first went to F.W. Karasek’s Lab. He had an early version of the IMS that had been made from the mass spec low pressure IMS systems. There, they increased the pressure to atmospheric pressure. When I got to WSU two years later, I was thinking about my experiences in IMS at Karasek’s Lab and realized that the problem there was that the drift section had too much interference, so we built a system that was completely enclosed and made a gas flow that was countercurrent to the ion flow. By doing that we could keep the contaminates out and put a sample through, really quickly, and then sweep it out and ionise it - this enabled us to ionise the sample efficiently. Today, it is the key advantage of IMS that you can analyse multiple samples very quickly and accurately.
In the 80’s, we began to think about how we could do this with non-volatile compounds and I’d remember Malcom Dole’s work. When he was doing electrospray IMS and electrospray MS. Then John Fenn came up with the first example of electrospray MS and we went for it. And as a result, within a year we had electrospray IMS running at high resolution in the lab. By the time Ching joined us, we wanted to develop a higher resolution IMS system. For this, we worked to make the field very smooth and see the multicharts states in proteins which no one else had ever seen before, and we were able to do polymeric compounds and see the individual states of the polymers. That was the beginning of high resolution IMS! Excellims was pivotal in getting HPIMS-MS going in our lab with a much higher resolving power because we use ambient pressure rather than low pressure systems of the other IMS systems.
What customer challenges/needs led you to develop this technology?
The vast majority of IMS devices are lab-based due to their size, they also typically take more time for analysis in comparison to HPIMS – which in a time critical situation is a significant drawback.
While there are a handful of handheld IMS devices for field use, they suffer from poor performance and so there is a reluctance to use them on the line as they are not trustworthy.
The holy grail for field analysis is getting lab-quality results in a small, portable footprint. Front line workers need rapid, reliable, accurate lab-quality results, at the point of risk and that is exactly what HPIMS is proven to deliver.
What does HPIMS mean for the industry and its users?
Excellims’ HPIMS takes IMS to another level in a way where it combats all the challenges traditionally associated with IMS. It is a fast, efficient and more cost-effective solution that, thanks to its small footprint, has the unique advantage over traditional IMS of being suitable for field analysis.
Its portability alone makes it accessible to many more applications than traditional IMS. HPIMS liberates the IMS method and makes it available at the point of risk, for example for on-scene forensic analysis, and drug analysis for emergency workers.
We have also proved HPIMS to be a reliable and accurate method, thus increasing the confidence of its users, particularly when using it for field analysis where its analyses can impact critical decisions and in some cases, save lives.
Why should people consider adding HPIMS to their analytical toolkit?
For me, the real question is why would you not have HPIMS in your toolkit? It’s benefits are beyond existing technology. HPIMS overcomes many of the challenges associated with IMS, such as high performance, peace of mind and high quality results both in and outside of a lab environment.
It is a versatile technique that so many markets can benefit from including; pharmaceutical, clinical diagnostics, food and drug safety and trace detection, to name a few.
This is just the start for Excellims and for the HPIMS technique, and I anticipate 10-20 years from now it will be deemed an essential part of any analytical toolkit. I want to take this opportunity to congratulate Excellims on taking this technique forward to where it is today. It continues to be a pleasure to work with such a forward-thinking, solution-oriented business.