Analyse This!

Posted on February 23, 2018

The Man Who Saved a Country

Professor Pat Sandra founded RIC, or the Research Institute for Chromatography, in Belgium.  As one of the world’s leading separation scientists he had to jump into action to save Belgium’s agricultural industry.  What happened?

First, chicken farmers started to notice that eggs weren’t hatching.  The chickens were starting to develop nervous disorders, and they were suffering from premature death.  One firm took action and sent samples of the feed to the government to be analyzed—the process was slow and it took over a month to show results.  What it did eventually show was dioxin contamination.

The future was looking gloomy since dioxin analysis took four weeks to complete with a price tag just under $2000 per test.  Professor Sandra thought that testing all the feed from all the different farmers for dioxin was a waste of time since dioxins are the results of other things not a primary contaminant in and of themselves.

As an analytical chemist he thought “Where do dioxins come from?” To him the answer seemed to be PCBs such as the oils they used to use in electrical transformers which were often contaminated with dioxin byproducts from the manufacturing process.  Testing for PCBs would be a much faster and much less expensive test.

He and his team quickly develop a fast testing method, determined that the feed was indeed heavily loaded with PCBs.  The feed had also been distributed to pig farms and cattle farms and soon all the surrounding countries shut their borders to Belgium agricultural products.

With his method, soon he could show which agricultural products were safe and Belgium’s agricultural economy was saved.  Hooray for analytical chemistry!  The rest of Europe started to buy their products again and now Belgium is the go-to source for that sort of analysis.

And yes, they did catch the criminals.  Two company officials that produced the contaminated fat added to the feed were arrested and charged with fraud.  Total financial loss is dated $1.5 billion for the Belgian economy.  Sandra’s quick response shortened the crisis.

What’s the point?

Without chemistry and chemicals, life itself would be impossible.  When people talk about “chemical additives” in their food I shake my head since all food is merely different arrangements of chemicals.

People talk about “natural nutrients” as if they are something special.  Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is indistinguishable from sodium ascorbate by our bodies.  It is used in exactly the same way, fulfills exactly the same function, and it makes no difference if we substitute one for the other.  It is cheap to produce (compared to growing an orange tree, with all the attendant labour, chemistry, and transportation required to deliver it to the general public) and is in no possible way inferior.

The word “natural” has been so abused in advertising that we tend to forget that even “poo” is “natural”, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to put it on my strawberries!

Getting Serious

Back in the year 2000, a little town named Walkerton in Ontario, experienced a crisis when a particularly dangerous strain of E.coli (Escherichia coli O157:H7) got into the water supply killing seven people and making thousands of others ill.  The two men responsible for ascertaining the quality of the water supply had no formal training.  To compound the difficulty they falsified records when they knew about the contamination.

Groundwater Contamination

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The contamination came from a farm’s runoff, where it intersected with the community’s ground water supply.  All of it could have been avoided with proper training and appropriate use of Analytical Chemistry.


Sadly, for the victims, the “Looks clean, smells clean, must BE clean” policy did not work.  New laws are in place now to prevent these sorts of occurrences.  The need is further emphasized by the fact that less than a year later in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, there was a similar outbreak of the protozoan Cryptosporidium which affected 5,800 people.

What is Analytical Chemistry?

In a rather poetical tribute, the American Chemical Society (ACS) once described analytical chemistry as the “art and science of determining what matter is and how much of it exists”.  I like that—it’s a nice combination of the ethereal and the pragmatic—and that is how it has been for a very long time.

The Bunsen Burner

The Bunsen Burner

It was Kirchhoff who suggested that they allow bright, full-spectrum light to pass through the flame from the test material, and then through a prism in hopes of differentiating otherwise similar-looking flames from each other.  Subsequently it was revealed that certain “bands” of light were absorbed by the flame rendering distinctive lines.In 1860 Robert Bunsen (yes, the same fellow that invented the Bunsen Burner) and Gustav Kirchhoff discovered two new alkali metals (rubidium and cesium) with a new invention they had created.  It was dependant on Bunsen’s Burner to supply the nearly invisible, colourless flame, to heat metals and salts to observe their flame colours and identify them.

Simplest element: Hydrogen

Simplest element: Hydrogen

By directly observing the hot gas they noted that there were identical bright lines showing areas of higher energy.  These absorption and emission lines were unique for every material—they had their working spectroscope!

Up until 1860 only 50 elements had been discovered beyond the classical ones known in history.  They were rendered through electrolysis (with the help of another invention, the Bunsen Battery), and by various chemical reactions.  After that year, there was a whole new world of elements to be discovered.  With the new spectroscope they could be detected in even the tiniest trace amounts.

Currently we’re up to 118 elements, though admittedly some of those are strictly artificial with half-lives measured in the hundredths of milliseconds, such as our newest “noble gas” Oganesson (118),spec of which we have only ever made three atoms, and they only existed for 0.89 milliseconds, or 0.00089 seconds.  And it took 1,080 hours to make it happen.  Practical value: None.  Advancing scientific knowledge: priceless!

It was the spectroscope that first allowed us to unravel the mystery of what distant suns were made of; to determine ages andtypes of stars.  And it allowed us to determine if stars were moving towards us or away because their spectral lines would be stretched out (redder) if they were receding, and compressed (bluer) if they were moving towards us.

Analytical ChemIn this chart an Analytical Chemist would tell you that the Mystery Sun on the left has five of these sixelements.  Can you look at these spectrographs and say which element is not present in the leftmost column?  Remember, if the black lines don’t match up, that is the missing element.  Use a ruler!  Hint: It’s the one not spelled the Canadian way!

Analytical Chemistry is Not Hard

This sort of chemistry requires specialized equipment, specialized training, but most importantly a particular mindset of the chemist as one who wants to solve a puzzle.  It requires a certain relentlessness in those that seek after knowledge.  It needs the sort of scientists who constantly say to themselves “This happened…but why?”

And, of course, analytical chemists are not constantly reviewing tragedies to find out what went wrong.  Yes, it’s a sure-fire scientific route to help break into crime scene investigation (CSI) if that is your life’s ambition, but it’s not the only way to go.

Analytical chemistry is used in toxicology, quality control, chemical or forensic analysis, product development & validation, and drug formulation & development.  It intersects with our lives every day.  You’ll find analytical chemists in marine sciences/oceanography, material sciences, or even geochemistry.  Robert Bunsen himself once risked his life to stick a thermometer in one of Iceland’s most famous volcanic powered geysers moments before it erupted, just to get a water sample and investigate the temperature.

What it gives back

This profession could be part of the team that develops the next non-polluting automotive fuel; that finally figures out how to make carbon nanotubes join together in such a way as to make the Space Elevator a reality; that develops a powder that comes in a salt shaker that you can sprinkle on a crude-oil covered duck or baby seal and all the oil sheds off in just a few seconds.

Analytical chemists participate daily in our quest to make brand new pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, and new ways to nourish our crops without the environmental impact.  They check to make sure our food is healthy, that our air clean, that our soil is suitable for growing food.

The Takeaway

We are so much better off than we were at the turn of the century.  There are new rules, procedures, and laws in place to protect us, along with a great deal of enthusiasm to do the job right.

Analytical chemistry is intricately associated with government and environmental agencies, public health, hospitals, testing companies, research councils, and innumerable forms of consultancy.  Its experts work in biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, chemical manufacture, food manufacturing, and all of the most advanced Materials Sciences.

Here at CARO we work hard every day to make life easier, healthier, safer, and more fun.  If we can help in any way to assure that your environment is safe we would be delighted to hear from you.  You can contact us through this webpage.

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