Monday, November 13, 2017

URSP Student Benjamin McDowell Studies Volatile Compounds

My project is the implementation of electrospray ionization in mass spectrometry for the study of volatile compounds.  Mass spectrometry is extensively used to identify molecular compounds by mass, both as a whole molecule and as fragments.  However, due to the presence of fragments, samples must be studied in isolation, achieved through gas chromatography.  Electrospray ionization offers an alternative to traditional ionization, which allows for analysis in the absence of chromatography.  Volatile compounds are best suited for this method due to their high vapor pressure.  This allows the spectrometer to work as an “electronic nose,” as volatile compounds are commonly associated with smells.  The hope is to use this “electronic nose” in the detection and identification of volatile compounds, often correlated with disease.  Currently my work focuses on the assembly of a vacuum system, needed to accommodate the electrospray setup as the input of the mass spectrometer.  To this end I am building several metal cones, known as skimmers, which guide the sample and are essential to the electrospray process.  The skimmers are made using electrodeposition, where thin layers of nickel are deposited on an aluminum template.  My weekly work typically involves a mix of electroplating nickel, machining new aluminum templates, and assembling the remainder of the vacuum system.  My favorite part of this project so far has been working with instrumentation and gaining a better understanding of methods of chemical analysis.  One unexpected skill I have learned is how to use a lathe, which is necessary for shaping the aluminum templates and removing the skimmers from the template.  In general my interests in Chemistry involve the analysis of molecular compounds, namely through spectrometry.  I hope to build off this research experience by pursuing a PhD in Chemistry after my graduation in the spring of 2018.