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Trace metal analysis with solid-state electrodes – Part 2

Trace metal analysis with solid-state electrodes – Part 2

In the second part of our series on «heavy metal» analysis with solid-state electrodes, the focus lies on the scTRACE Gold electrode. Gold electrodes have been used in electrochemistry for decades. However, the scTRACE Gold has a very special design. Originally developed to improve the voltammetric determination of arsenic, the electrode has also proven to be suitable for the determination of a number of other elements, such as copper, iron, lead, and even the toxic chromium(VI).

How does it work?

The working electrode is a gold micro-wire (Fig. 1), which is thinner than a human hair. This special form of electrode leads to a very short initial preparation time. Different from other gold electrodes, the scTRACE Gold is ready for use within a few minutes.

Another advantage of this electrode is that it comes with the reference and the auxiliary electrode printed on the rear side of the sensor (Fig. 2). That does not only save on costs for the two additional electrodes required in a voltammetric system, it also makes maintenance for the reference electrode obsolete.

Figure 1. Close-up view of the gold micro-wire working electrode on the scTRACE Gold.

Figure 2. Close-up view of the reference and auxiliary electrode on the rear side of the scTRACE Gold.

Applications

The high level of sensitivity and a straightforward setup makes voltammetry a valuable tool in drinking water analysis.

Availability of clean drinking water is one of the major concerns of the 21st century. Besides microbiological contaminations, such as bacteria and viruses, the presence of heavy metals in drinking water can be a health risk. The first step in providing clean water is to identify contaminants, since health-threatening concentrations of heavy metals are not visible. For many heavy metals, limit values in drinking water are specified by authorities like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the European Commission. Water quality laboratories often use ICP (inductively coupled plasma) to monitor metal concentrations in drinking water.

Voltammetry is one of the few analysis techniques which offers a comparable sensitivity. Needing only basic infrastructure and low running costs, voltammetry is a viable alternative to monitor some key elements. In the following sections, some selected application examples are shown which demonstrate the capabilities of the scTrace Gold electrode in water analysis.

Arsenic in drinking water

Arsenic gained some global notoriety when water wells were built in Bangladesh to avoid diseases caused by microbiological contaminations in the surface water. Rather than suffering from cholera or hepatitis, people were instead afflicted with chronic arsenic poisoning.

It would be somewhat careless to believe that arsenic is only a problem in less developed countries. Actually, arsenic can be found nearly everywhere in the earth’s crust. Though as Paracelsus already knew, «the concentration makes the poison».

Therefore, the crucial question is how much of this arsenic finds its way into the water table. The WHO (World Health Organization) recommends a concentration of 10 µg/L arsenic as the maximum level in water that is intended for human consumption. This figure is also the legal limit in many countries.

Want to know more about arsenic? Then download our free article: «Arsenic – The multipurpose poison».

The voltammetric determination of the limit value of 10 µg/L shows a recovery of about 92% (n = 10 determinations) with a relative standard deviation of 6.5%. With a detection limit of 1 µg/L, which is one tenth of the legal limit, voltammetry using the scTRACE Gold electrode offers a reliable and cost-effective way of monitoring the arsenic content of drinking water.

For more information, download our free application note AN-V-210: Total arsenic in mineral water – Straightforward determination by voltammetry on a gold microwire electrode.

The scTRACE Gold electrode can be used with the 884 Professional VA as well as with the 946 Portable VA Analyzer. The 884 Professional VA is designed for laboratory use. The system is extremely flexible and can be adapted to user requirements. The modular setup also allows a later extension of the instrument from manual to fully automated.

As the name says, the 946 Portable VA Analyzer is intended for mobile use. It allows for on-site determination, directly at the sample source.

Copper in surface water

Under normal circumstances, copper in drinking water is not a problem. The legal limits are comparably high, WHO recommends a maximum concentration of 2 mg/L. An example from the field illustrates where the determination of copper in water can nevertheless be advisable.

The production of distilled alcoholic beverages (e.g., gin, whiskey, brandy, schnapps) involves single or multiple distillation of the raw material, which is done in copper stills. Cleaning out the copper apparatus and draining the rinsing water to a river can contaminate the environment with copper.

Although regulatory limits in effluents are usually higher than in drinking water, the copper limits can still be exceeded if the water is not treated properly prior to discharge. Since pollution from this cleaning is not a continuous process but only occurs periodically, it is difficult to detect and even harder to confirm, especially in less accessible areas.

Here, mobile voltammetry using the scTRACE Gold with the 946 Portable VA Analyzer can make a valuable contribution to the protection of the environment due to the reliable determination of low concentrations of copper.

For a concentration of 5 µg/L, the mean recovery of 10 determinations is approximately 107%, with a relative standard deviation of 2%. Concentrations down to 0.5 µg/L copper in the water can be determined directly at the point of sampling. This allows immediate re-sampling in case of suspicious results, and can furthermore help to locate the source of the pollution. In this way, chances increase to identify the source and hold the responsible entity accountable.

For more information, download our free application note AN-V-213: Copper in drinking water – Straightforward determination by voltammetry using a gold microwire electrode.

Iron in water

According to WHO, iron does not pose a health concern in levels typically found in drinking water. In contrast, it is an essential element for human nutrition. Nevertheless, many countries specify a maximum contaminant level between 200 µg/L and 300 µg/L.

The reason is simply that higher concentrations have a negative effect on the taste of the water, and will stain laundry and sanitary appliances. 

With a detection limit of 10 µg/L, the voltammetric determination of iron offers a straightforward method for monitoring the iron concentration of the water supply. The recovery of a voltammetric determination of 20 µg/L Fe is in the range of 91% (n = 10 determinations) with a relative standard deviation of 1%.

For more information, download our free application note AN-V-216: Iron in drinking water – Straightforward determination by voltammetry using a gold microwire electrode (DHN method).

What’s next?

In part two of this series, I introduced the scTRACE Gold electrode which I will also continue to discuss in Part 3. In the next installment, I will focus on applications which are carried out after electrochemical modification of the gold micro-wire.

Post written by Barbara ZumbrägelProduct Manager VA/CVS at Metrohm International Headquarters, Herisau, Switzerland.

Making a better beer with chemistry

Making a better beer with chemistry

Lager or ale? Pale ale or stout? Specialty beer, or basic draft? This week, to celebrate the International Beer Day on Friday, August 7th, I have chosen to write about a subject near and dear to me: how to make a better beer! Like many others, at the beginning of my adult life, I enjoyed the beverage without giving much thought to the vast array of styles and how they differed, beyond the obvious visual and gustatory senses. However, as a chemist with many chemist friends, I was introduced at several points to the world of homebrewing. Eventually, I succumbed.

Back in 2014, my husband and I bought all of the accessories to brew 25 liters (~6.5 gallons) of our own beer at a time. The entire process is controlled by us, from designing a recipe and milling the grains to sanitizing and bottling the finished product. We enjoy being able to develop the exact bitterness, sweetness, mouthfeel, and alcohol content for each batch we brew.

Over the years we have become more serious about this hobby by optimizing the procedure and making various improvements to the setup – including building our own temperature-controlled fermentation fridge managed by software. However, without an automated system, we occasionally run into issues with reproducibility between batches when using the same recipe. This is an issue that every brewer can relate to, no matter the size of their operation.

Working for Metrohm since 2013 has allowed me to have access to different analytical instrumentation in order to check certain quality attributes (e.g., strike water composition, mash pH, bitterness). However, Metrohm can provide much more to those working in the brewing industry. Keep reading to discover how we have improved analysis at the largest brewery in Switzerland.

Are you looking for applications in alcoholic beverages? Check out this selection of FREE Application Notes from Metrohm:

Lagers vs. Ales

There are two primary classes of beer: lagers and ales. The major contrast between the two is the type of yeast used for the fermentation process. Lagers must be fermented at colder temperatures, which lends crisp flavors and low ester formation. However, colder processes take longer, and so fermentation steps can last for some months. Ales have a much more sweet and fruity palate of flavors and are much easier to create than lagers, as the fermentation takes place at warmer temperatures and happens at a much faster rate.

Comparison between the fermentation of lagers and ales.

Diving a bit deeper, there are several styles of beer, from light pilsners and pale ales to porters and black imperial stouts. The variety of colors and flavors depend mostly on the grains used during the mash, which is the initial process of soaking the milled grains at a specific temperature (or range) to modify the starches and sugars for the yeast to be able to digest. The strain of yeast also contributes to the final flavor, whether it is dry, fruity, or even sour. Taking good care of the yeast is one of the most important parts of creating a great tasting beer.

Brewing terminology

  • Malting: process of germinating and kilning barley to produce usable sugars in the grain
  • Milling: act of grinding the grains to increase surface area and optimize extraction of sugars
  • Mashing: releasing malt sugars by soaking the milled grains in (hot) water, providing wort
  • Wort: the solution of extracted grain sugars
  • Lautering: process of clarifying wort after mashing
  • Sparging: rinsing the used grains to extract the last amount of malt sugars
  • Boiling: clarified wort is boiled, accomplishing sterilization (hops are added in this step)
  • Cooling: wort must be cooled well below body temperature (37 °C) as quickly as possible to avoid infection
  • Pitching: prepared yeast (dry or slurry) is added to the cooled brewed wort, oxygen is introduced
  • Fermenting: the process whereby yeast consumes simple sugars and excretes ethanol and CO2 as major products

Ingredients for a proper beer

These days, beer can contain several different ingredients and still adhere to a style. Barley, oats, wheat, rye, fruit, honey, spices, hops, yeast, water, and more are all components of our contemporary beer culture. However, in Bavaria during the 1500’s, the rules were much more strict. A purity law known as the Reinheitsgebot (1516) stated that beer must only be produced with water, barley, and hops. Any other adjuncts were not allowed, which meant that other grains such as rye and wheat were forbidden to be used in the brewing process. We all know how seriously the Germans take their beer – you only need to visit the Oktoberfest once to understand!

Determination of the bitterness compounds in hops, known as «alpha acids», can be easily determined with Metrohm instrumentation. Check out our brochure for more information:

You may have noticed that yeast was not one of the few ingredients mentioned in the purity law, however it was still essential for the brewing process. The yeast was just harvested at the end of each batch and added into the next, and its propagation from the fermentation process always ensured there was enough at the end each time. Ensuring the health of the yeast is integral to fermentation and the quality of the final product. With proper nutrients, oxygen levels, stable temperatures, and a supply of simple digestible sugars, alcohol contents up to 25% (and even beyond) can be achieved with some yeast strains without distillation (through heating or freezing, as for eisbocks).

Improved quality with analytical testing

Good beers do not make themselves. For larger brewing operations, which rely on consistency in quality and flavor between large batch volumes as well as across different countries, comprehensive analytical testing is the key to success.

Metrohm is well-equipped for this task, offering many solutions for breweries large and small.

Don’t take it from me – listen to one of our customers, Jules Wyss, manager of the Quality Assurance laboratory at Feldschlösschen brewery, the largest brewery in Switzerland.

«I have decided to go with Metrohm, because they are the only ones who are up to such a job at all. They share with us their huge know-how.

I can’t think of any other supplier who would have been able to help me in the same way

Jules Wyss

Manager Quality Assurance Laboratory, Feldschlösschen Getränke AG

Previous solutions failed

For a long time, Jules determined the quality parameters in his beer samples using separate analysis systems: a titrator, HPLC system, alcohol measuring device, and a density meter. These separate measurements involved a huge amount of work: not only the analyses themselves, but also the documentation and archiving of the results all had to be handled separately. Furthermore, Jules often had to contend with unreliable results – depending on the measurement procedure, he had to analyze one sample up to three times in order to obtain an accurate result.

A tailor-made system for Feldschlösschen

Jules’ close collaboration with Metrohm has produced a system that takes care of the majority of the necessary measurements. According to Jules, the system can determine around 90% of the parameters he needs to measure. Jules’ new analysis system combines various analysis techniques: ion chromatography and titration from Metrohm as well as alcohol, density, and color measurement from another manufacturer. They are all controlled by the tiamo titration software. This means that bitterness, citric acid, pH value, alcohol content, density, and color can all be determined by executing a single method in tiamo.

Measurement of the overall water quality as well as downstream analysis of the sanitization process on the bottling line is also possible with Metrohm’s line of Process Analysis instrumentation.

Integrated analytical systems with automated capabilities allow for a «plug and play» determination of a variety of quality parameters for QA/QC analysts in the brewing industry. Sample analysis is streamlined and simplified, and throughput is increased via the automation of time-consuming preparative and data collection steps, which also reduces the chance of human error.

Something to celebrate: The Metrohm 6-pack (2018)

In 2018, Metrohm celebrated its 75 year Jubilee. At this time, I decided to combine my experience as a laboratory analyst as well as a marketing manager to brew a series of six different styles of beer for the company, as a giveaway for customers of our Metrohm Process Analytics brand, for whom I worked at the time. Each batch was brewed to contain precisely 7.5% ABV (alcohol by volume), to resonate with the 75 year anniversary. The array of ales was designed to appeal to a broad audience, featuring a stout, porter, brown ale, red ale, hefeweizen, and an India pale ale (IPA). Each style requires different actions especially during the mashing process, based on the type of grains used and the desired outcome (e.g., flavor balance, mouthfeel, alcohol content).

Bespoke bottle caps featuring the Metrohm logo.
The 6 styles of beers brewed as a special customer giveaway to celebrate the Metrohm 75 year Jubilee.

Using a Metrohm Ion Chromatograph, I analyzed my home tap water for concentrations of major cations and anions to ensure no extra salts were needed to adjust it prior to mashing. After some of the beers were prepared, I tested my colleagues at Metrohm International Headquarters in the IC department, to see if they could determine the difference between two bottles with different ingredients:

Overlaid chromatograms from IC organic acid analysis highlighting the differences between 2 styles of the Metrohm 75 year Jubilee beers.

The IC analysis of organic acids and anions showed a clear difference between the beers, allowing them to determine which sample corresponded to which style, since I did not label them prior to shipping the bottles for analysis. As the milk stout contained added lactose, this peak was very pronounced and a perfect indicator to use.

Metrohm ion chromatography, along with titration, NIRS, and other techniques, allows for reliable, comprehensive beer analysis for all.

In conclusion, I wish you a very happy International Beer Day this Friday. Hopefully this article has illuminated the various ways that beer and other alcoholic beverages can be analytically tested for quality control parameters and more  fast, easy, and reliably with Metrohm instrumentation.

For more information about the beer quality parameters measured at Feldschlösschen brewery, take a look at our article: «In the kingdom of beer The largest brewery in Switzerland gets a made-to-measure system». Cheers!

Read the full article:

«In the kingdom of beer – The largest brewery in Switzerland gets a made-to-measure system»

Post written by Dr. Alyson Lanciki, Scientific Editor (and «chief brewing officer») at Metrohm International Headquarters, Herisau, Switzerland.

History of Metrohm IC – Part 1

History of Metrohm IC – Part 1

Ion chromatography (IC) has been a part of the Metrohm portfolio of analytical chemical instrumentation since 1987, and in that span of 33 years, several new and exciting developments have been introduced challenging the limits of what IC can do. From simple setups for academic laboratories, to hyphenated techniques (e.g., IC-ICP-MS) broadening the capabilities of chemical analysis – we’ve done it! This week, I would like to begin to unveil the history of this analytical method at Metrohm and how it has changed over the intervening decades.

«The mid-1980‘s. Our mission: develop an affordable ion chromatograph with a minimal footprint, simple to use, providing outstanding measurements.»

Walter Terzer, R&D ion chromatography, Metrohm AG

«The 690 Ion Chromatograph was engineered for people without a PhD in chemistry, too. And it was so rugged that quite a few 690 IC’s are used even today. Most importantly: At the time, it cost only half as much as our competitor’s product!»

Dr. Markus Läubli, R&D ion chromatography, Metrohm AG

The beginning: 1980’s

Ion chromatography was added to the Metrohm portfolio in 1987, broadening our span of techniques, which at the time only included titration, meters, voltammetry, and the Rancimat. IC, already a couple of years on the market, was seen on one hand as a very interesting method, but on the other hand also as a very complex and expensive technology.

The increasing viability of IC for previously typical titration applications guided Metrohm to focus on this method.

The Metrohm 636 Titroprocessor.

Development of the conductivity detector

Conductivity is the most common detection technique used with ion chromatography. Conductivity is the inherent sum parameter of all ions in aqueous solution. As ion chromatography is performed using aqueous solutions such as eluents (i.e. the mobile phase) and samples, conductivity is the essential detection mode.

You can see how this is measured in the video below. Other detection techniques can be used as well, but typically are applicable only in special cases.

The modernized, compact, and intelligent Metrohm IC Conductivity Detector.

In the early 1980s, the method of IC began to compete for market share with titration. Based on positive experiences with the amperometric detector (641 VA Detector, introduced in 1980, and originally sold as an HPLC detector) and Metrohm’s competence in conductivity measurement, this led to the idea to develop a conductivity detector in a similar manner. A prerequisite for the project was the availability of separation columns (stationary phase) which allowed analysts to reach detection limits of 1 mg/L (or lower) of the standard anions.

The Metrohm 641 VA Detector.

In 1984, a test was run on an initial setup consisting of a single-piston HPLC pump, a 6-port injector, commercially available IC separation columns, a conductivity detector, and a chart recorder (586 Labograph). This test proved that the 1 mg/L limit could be reached, and thus the project of developing an official Metrohm conductivity detector began.

At that time, chemical suppression introduced by Small, Stevens, and Baumann [1] was patented and not available. However, non-suppressed conductivity detection described by Gjerde, Schmuckler, and Fritz [2] was seen as a viable alternative. When measurement of low concentrations of ions in solution was necessary, the very small chromatographic peaks plus the high conductivity background from the mobile phase (eluent) created a challenge, and special requirements for the conductivity detector had to be taken into account. The most critical of these was the temperature coefficient of the conductivity, which is typically around 2%/°C. This requires maintaining an extremely stable temperature during the measurement.

During the initial development phase it was found that, aside from bulk measurement, platinum was not the best material for electrodes in a flow-through cell. However, stainless steel worked perfectly. The measuring cell still needed to be insulated, however, insulation alone was not sufficient. Active thermostating was required to achieve a temperature stability of better than 0.01 °C. That stability was measured with a thermocouple, and recorded on the Labograph. Later on, with more sophisticated tools the stability was determined to be better than 0.001 °C.

Even after all of this hard work, the initial system baseline stability was still not good enough. As it turned out, several components of the IC system needed to be thermally stabilized. Additionally, the different brand of HPLC pump was not optimal for the development of the Metrohm ion chromatograph.

The Metrohm 690 Ion Chromatograph.

The first decision was to put the conductivity detector project to the side, and start building an ion chromatograph. Thus, the first Metrohm IC (the 690 Ion Chromatograph) was developed. The 690 IC consisted of: a foam polymer housing for perfect thermal insulation, the electronic and detector block, as well as a pulse dampener, a sample injector, and separation column. All capillary connections consisted of HPLC capillaries at the time (made from stainless steel). The inadequate HPLC pump was replaced and upgraded with a Metrohm IC Pump, and the Labograph was almost immediately followed by an integrator, which completed the IC system.

Despite the general consensus in the 1980s that ion chromatography was only robust while using metal-free instruments, Metrohm was able to run anion, cation, and ion-exclusion chromatography on stainless steel-based systems. Even determinations of heavy metals were performed without issues.

Conductivity detection with «electronic suppression»

A drawback of non-suppressed IC is the relatively high inherent baseline noise, due to high conductivity levels from the mobile phase. Parameters which add to this baseline noise include temperature induced fluctuations, pump noise, and electronic noise.

The temperature influence on baseline noise was minimized thanks to the near perfect thermal stabilization of the detector. The quality of the high pressure pump is important to stabilize the baseline, however, under standard running conditions it does not add much to the baseline noise. Finally, after optimizing these points, it was clear that the electronic noise was the most important parameter on which to focus. Each electronic component influences temperature fluctuations and also adds some amount of noise.

Internal view of the Metrohm 690 IC. The conductivity detector is highlighted.

The thermostated detector block consisted of an aluminum block for thermostating, a built-in measuring cell, and an electronic preamplifier. This preamplifier guaranteed that the measured analog conductivity signal was insensitive to external fields when guided to the main electronics.

Auto Zero function for background compensation purposes during measurement.

The Auto Zero function measured the actual conductivity at initialization of the function and was subtracted from the signal throughout the chromatogram. This can be called background compensation. The «electronic suppression» designation is given due to an electronic setup which additionally reduced the electronic noise. The idea behind this is as simple as it was effective. The electronics were set to measure the actual conductivity signal as well as the measured background conductivity through two parallel paths with identical electronic components. Subtraction of the two signals was done just prior to the output to the external A/D converter. Under an assumption that the same components should add the same noise and exhibit similar thermal behavior, both signals are influenced in the same manner. Therefore, the noise level was minimized even further.

Additionally, the apparent noise level was improved using the optimal output window (called «Full-scale») in units of [µS/cm]. The Metrohm Application Note AN-C-032 describes this effect. At that time, this noise level of approximately 2 nS/cm was similar to or better than analyses performed with chemical suppression.

Separation column developments

At market launch in late 1987, Metrohm offered a total of six IC separation columns: two suitable for anions, one for monovalent cations, one for divalent cations, and one for organic acids (ion-exclusion). At that time, the group of Prof. Dr. Schomburg (Institut für Kohlenforschung, Mühlheim/Ruhr, DE) studied the preparation of HPLC phases by coating polymer materials on to e.g. silica. One of the phases used was poly(butadiene/maleic acid) on a silica material, which was found to be able to separate mono- and divalent cations in a single isocratic run. Metrohm acquired the technology and started column production in Herisau, Switzerland.

The so-called «Schomburg column» or later «Super-Sep Cation column» was the very first column on the market allowing the simultaneous separation of alkali and alkaline earth metal cations. Even the current Metrosep C 4 and Metrosep C 6 columns’ roots date back to the Schomburg column.

Data handling capabilities

In the first months on the market, only the Labograph (a chart recorder) was available for the new IC. This was of course not really acceptable. Nevertheless, results achieved by cutting out and physically weighing the peaks were quite correct. The first integrator (Shimadzu C-R5A) was a tabletop integrator with LCD display (2 lines), storage capabilities (2 chromatograms in the instrument, and 5 chromatograms per external card), and a thermo-printer for documentation.

Top: Metrohm 690 Ion Chromatograph with Labograph on the left, and separation columns in the foreground.
Bottom: Metrohm 690 Ion Chromatograph with the Shimadzu C-R5A tabletop integrator on the left.

In 1991, the first PC-based data acquisition and handling software (714 IC-Metrodata) was developed, consisting of a data acquisition box and the DOS-based integration software. Five years later in 1996, the software of the 714 IC-Metrodata was updated to a Windows version. Then in 2000, the new IC Net software was released together with the 762 IC Interface and 771 IC Compact interface for both data acquisition and remote control capabilities.

The 690 IC featuring the 714 IC-Metrodata, ushering scientists into a new era of peak integration possibilities.

What’s next?

Stay tuned for the next installment in this series, covering the 1990s and early 2000s. During this time, Metrohm developed modular IC, the Metrohm Suppressor Module (MSM), as well as some outstanding separation columns. Subscribe to the blog below so you don’t miss out!

Download our free Monograph for more information

Practical Ion Chromatography – An Introduction

References

[1] Small, H.; Stevens, T.S.; W.C. Baumann. Novel ion exchange chromatographic method using conductimetric detection. Anal. Chem. 1975, 47 (11), 1801–1809. https://doi.org/10.1021/ac60361a017

[2]  Gjerde, D. T.; Fritz, J. S.; Schmuckler, G. Anion Chromatography with Low-Conductivity Eluents. J. Chromatogr. A 1979, 186, 509–519. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0021-9673(00)95271-3

Post written by Dr. Markus Läubli, Manager Marketing Support IC at Metrohm International Headquarters, Herisau, Switzerland.

Frequently asked questions in Karl Fischer titration – Part 1

Frequently asked questions in Karl Fischer titration – Part 1

Since I started working at Metrohm more than 15 years ago, I have received many questions about Karl Fischer titration. Some of those questions have been asked repeatedly from several people in different locations around the world. Therefore, I have chosen 20 of the most frequent questions received over the years concerning Karl Fischer equipment and arranged them into three categories: instrument preparation and handling, titration troubleshooting, and the oven technique. Part 1 will cover instrument preparation and handling, and Part 2 will cover the other two topics.

Summary of questions in the FAQ (click to go directly to each question):

Instrument preparation and handling

1.  How can I check if the electrode is working correctly?

I recommend carrying out a volumetric or coulometric Karl Fischer titration using a certified water standard as sample. In volumetry, you can carry out a threefold titer determination followed by a determination of a different standard. Then, you can calculate the recovery of the water content determination of the standard.

To check a coulometric system, carry out a threefold determination with a certified water standard and calculate the recovery. If the recovery is between 97–103%, this indicated that the system, including the electrode, is working fine.

The color of the working medium is an additional indicator as to whether the indication is working properly.

Pale yellow is perfect, whereas dark yellow or even pale brown suggests indication problems. If this happens, then the indicator electrode should be cleaned.

Check out questions 7 and 8 for tips on the cleaning of the indicator electrode.

2.  How long can an electrode be stored in KF reagent?

Karl Fischer electrodes are made from glass and platinum. Therefore, the KF reagent does not affect the electrode. It can be stored in reagent as long as you want.

3.  Can the molecular sieve be dried and reused, or should it be replaced?

The molecular sieve can of course be dried and reused. I recommend drying it for at least 24 hours at a temperature between 200–300 °C. Afterwards, let it cool down in a desiccator and then transfer it into a glass bottle with an airtight seal for storage. 

4.  How long does conditioning normally take?

Conditioning of a freshly filled titration vessel normally takes around 2–4 minutes for volumetry, depending on the reaction speed (type of reagent), and around 15–30 minutes for coulometry. In combination with an oven, it might take a bit longer to reach a stable drift owing to the constant gas flow. I recommend stabilizing the entire oven system for at least 1 hour before the first titration.

Between single measurements in the same working medium, conditioning takes approximately 1–2 minutes. Take care that the original drift level is reached again.

5.  When conditioning, many bubbles form in the coulometric titration cell with a very high drift, also when using fresh reagent. What could be the reason for this effect?

At the anode, the generator electrode produces iodine from the iodide-containing reagent. The bubbles you see at the cathode are the result of the reduction of H+ ions to hydrogen gas.

After opening the titration cell or after filling it with fresh reagent, the conditioning step removes any moisture brought into the system, avoiding a bias in the water content determination of the sample. Removing the water results in an increased drift level. During conditioning, the aforementioned H2 is generated. The gas bubbles are therefore completely normal and not a cause for concern. Generally, the following rule applies: The more moisture present in the titration vessel, the higher the drift value will be, and the more hydrogen will form.

6.  What is the best frequency to clean the Karl Fischer equipment?

There is no strict rule as to when you should clean the KF equipment. The cleaning intervals strongly depend on the type and the amount of sample added to the titration cell. Poor solubility and contamination of the indicator electrode (deposition layer on its surface) or memory effects due to large amounts of sample can be good reasons for cleaning the equipment.

The drift can be a good indicator as well. In case you observe higher and unstable drift values, I would recommend cleaning the titration cell or at least refilling the working medium.

7.  How do I clean the Karl Fischer equipment?

For a mounted titration vessel, it can be as simple as rinsing with alcohol. For an intense cleaning, the vessel should be removed from the titrator. Water, solvents like methanol, or cleaning agents are fine to clean the KF equipment. Even concentrated nitric acid can be used as an oxidizing agent, e.g. in case of contaminated indicator electrodes or coulometric generator electrodes.

All of these options are fine, but keep in mind that the last cleaning step should always be rinsing with alcohol followed by proper drying in a drying oven or with a hair dryer at max. 50 °C to remove as much adherent water as possible.

You should never use ketones (e.g., acetone) to clean Karl Fischer equipment, as they react with methanol. This reaction releases water. If there are still traces of ketones left in the titration cell after cleaning, they will react with the methanol in the KF reagent and might cause the drift to be too high to start any titration.

8.  Is it also possible to use a cleaning agent like «CIF» or toothpaste to clean the double Pt electrode?

Normally, rinsing with alcoholic solvents and polishing with paper tissue should be enough to clean the indicator electrode. You may also use detergents, toothpaste, or the polishing set offered by Metrohm! Just make sure that you rinse the electrode properly after the cleaning process to remove all traces of your chosen cleaning agent before using the electrode again.

Cleaning instructions can also be found in our video about metal and KF electrode maintenance:

9.  How do I clean a generator electrode with a diaphragm?

After removing the generator electrode from the titration vessel, dispose the catholyte solution, then rinse the electrode with water. Place the generator electrode upright (e.g., in an Erlenmeyer flask) and cover the connector with the protection cap to prevent corrosion. Fill the generator electrode with some milliliters of concentrated nitric acid, and let the acid flow through the diaphragm. Then fill the cathode compartment with water, and again allow the liquid to flow through the diaphragm. Repeat the rinsing step with water several times to make sure that all traces of nitric acid are washed out of the diaphragm.

Please note that the nitric acid treatment can be left out if the level of contamination does not require it.

Finally, pour some methanol into the generator electrode to remove the water. Repeat this step a few times to remove all traces of water. The last step is properly drying the electrode in a drying oven or with a hair dryer at max. 50 °C. After this cleaning procedure, the electrode is as good as new and can be used again for titrations.

Keep on the lookout for our next installment in this two-part series, or subscribe to the blog below so you’re sure not to miss it! In Part 2, I will cover the topics of KF titration troubleshooting and the Karl Fischer oven technique.

Post written by Michael Margreth, Sr. Product Specialist Titration (Karl Fischer Titration) at Metrohm International Headquarters, Herisau, Switzerland.

The role of process automation in an interconnected world – Part 2

The role of process automation in an interconnected world – Part 2

The following scenario sounds like a fictional dystopian narrative, but it is a lived reality. A catastrophe, much like the current COVID-19 crisis, is dramatically impacting society. The normality, as was known before, has suddenly changed: streets are swept empty, shops are closed, and manufacturing is reduced or at a complete standstill. But what happens to safety-related systems, e.g. in the pharmaceutical or food industry, which must not stand still and are designed in such a way that they cannot fail? How can the risk of breakdowns and downtimes be minimized? Or in the event of failure, how can the damage to people and the environment be limited or, in general, the operational sequence maintained?

Digitalization: curse or blessing? 

When considering process engineering plants, one is repeatedly confronted with buzzwords such as «Industry 4.0», «digitalization», «digital transformation», «IoT», «smart manufacturing», etc. The topic is often discussed controversially and often it is about an either-or dichotomy: either man or the machine and the associated fears. No matter what name you give to digitalization, each term here has one thing in common: intelligently networking separate locations and processes in industrial production using modern information and communication technologies. Process automation is a small but important building block that needs attention. Data can only be consistently recorded, forwarded, and reproduced with robust and reliable measurement technology.

For some time already, topics including sensors, automation, and process control have been discussed in the process industry (PAT) with the aim of reducing downtimes and optimizing the use of resources. However, it is not just about the pure collection of data, but also about their meaningful interpretation and integration into the QM system. Only a consequent assessment and evaluation can lead to a significant increase in efficiency and optimization.

This represents a real opportunity to maintain production processes with reduced manpower in times of crisis. Relevant analyses are automatically and fully transferred to the process. This enables high availability and rapid intervention, as well as the assurance of high quality requirements for both process security and process optimization. In addition, online monitoring of all system components and preventive maintenance activities effectively counteracts a failure.

Digitally networked production plants

Even though digitalization is relatively well-established in the private sector under the catchphrase «smart home», in many production areas the topic is still very much in its infancy. In order to intelligently network different processes, high demands are made. Process analysis systems make a major contribution to the analysis of critical parameters. Forwarding the data to the control room is crucial for process control and optimization. In order to correspond to the state-of-the-art, process analysis systems must meet the following requirements:

Transparent communication / operational maintenance

Processes must be continuously monitored and plant safety guaranteed. Downtimes are associated with high expenditure and costs and therefore cannot be tolerated. In order to effectively minimize the risk of failures, device-specific diagnostic data must be continuously transmitted as part of the self-check, or failures must be prevented with the help of preventive maintenance activities. Ideally, the response must be quick, and faults remedied without having to shut down the system (even remotely).

Future-proof automation

If you consider how many years (or even decades) process plants are in operation, it is self-explanatory that extensions and optimizations must be possible within their lifetime. This includes both the implementation of state-of-the-art analyzers and the communication between the systems.

Redundant systems

In order to prevent faults from endangering the entire system operation, redundancy concepts are generally used.

Practical example: Smart concepts for fermentation processes

Fermenters or bioreactors are used in a wide variety of industries to cultivate microorganisms or cells. Bacteria, yeasts, mammalian cells, or their components serve as important active ingredients in pharmaeuticals or as basic chemicals in the chemical industry. In addition, there are also degradation processes in wastewater treatment assisted by using bioreactors. Brewing kettles in beer production can also be considered as a kind of bioreactor. In order to meet the high requirements for a corresponding product yield and the maintenance of the ideal conditions for proper metabolism, critical parameters have to be checked closely, and often.

The conditions must be optimally adapted to those of the organism’s natural habitat. In addition to the pH value and temperature, this also includes the composition of the matrix, the turbidity, or the content of O2 and CO2. The creation of optimal environmental conditions is crucial for a successful cultivation of the organisms. The smallest deviations have devastating consequences for their survival, and can cause significant economic damage.

As a rule, many of the parameters mentioned are measured directly in the medium using inline probes and sensors. However, their application has a major disadvantage. Mechanical loads (e.g., glass breakage) or solids can lead to rapid material wear and contaminated batches, resulting in high operational costs. With the advent of ​​smart technologies, online analysis systems and maintenance-free sensors have become indispensable to ensure the survival of the microorganisms. In this way, reliably measured values ​​are delivered around the clock, and it is ensured that these are transferred directly to all common process control systems or integrated into existing QM systems.

Rather than manual offline measurement in a separate laboratory, the analysis is moved to an external measuring cell. The sample stream is fed to the analysis system by suction with peristaltic pumps or bypass lines. Online analysis not only enables the possibility of 24/7 operation and thus a close control of the critical parameters, but also the combination of different analysis methods and the determination of further parameters. This means that several parameters as well as multiple measuring points can be monitored with one system.

The heart of the analysis systems is the intelligent sensor technology, whose robustness is crucial for the reliable generation of measured values.

pH measurement as a vital key parameter in bioreactors

Knowledge of the exact pH value is crucial for the product yield, especially in fermentation processes. The activity of the organism and its metabolism are directly dependent on the pH value. The ideal conditions for optimal cell growth and proper metabolism are within a limited pH tolerance range, which must be continuously monitored and adjusted with the help of highly accurate sensors.

However, the exact measurement of the pH value is subject to a number of chemical, physical, and mechanical influencing factors, which means that the determination with conventional inline sensors is often too imprecise and can lead to expensive failures for users. For example, compliance with hygiene measures is of fundamental importance in the pharmaceutical and food industries. Pipelines in the production are cleaned with solutions at elevated temperatures. Fixed sensors that are exposed to these solutions see detrimental effects: significantly reduced lifespan, sensitivity, and accuracy.

Intelligent and maintenance-free pH electrodes

Glass electrodes are most commonly used for pH measurement because they are still by far the most resistant, versatile, and reliable solution. However, in many cases changes due to aging processes or contamination in the diaphragm remain undetected. Glass breakage also poses a high risk, because it may result in the entire production batch being discarded.

The aging of the pH-sensitive glass relates to the change in the hydration layer, which becomes thicker as time goes on. The consequence is a sluggish response, drift effects, or a decrease in slope. In this case, calibration or adjustment with suitable buffer solutions is necessary. Especially if there are no empirical values ​​available, short intervals are recommended, which significantly increase the effort for maintenance work.

With online process analyzers, the measurement is transferred from the process to an external measuring cell. This enables a long-lasting pH measurement to be achieved with an accuracy that is not possible with classic inline probes.

In many process solutions, measurement with process sensors takes place directly in the medium. This inevitably means that the calibration and maintenance of electrodes is particularly challenging in places that are difficult to access, leading to expensive maintenance work and downtimes. Regular calibration of the electrodes is recommended, especially when used under extreme conditions or on the edge of the defined specifications.

If the measurement is carried out with online process analyzers, then calibration, adjustment and cleaning are carried out fully automatically. The system continuously monitors the condition of the electrode. Between measurements, the electrode is immersed in a membrane-friendly storage solution that avoids drying out, and at the same time prevents the hydration layer from swelling further as it does not contain alkali ions. The electrode is always ready for use and does not have to be removed from the process for maintenance work.

The 2026 pH Analyzer from Metrohm Process Analytics is a fully automatic analysis system, e.g., for determining the pH value as an individual process parameter.

Maintenance and digitalization

In addition to the automatic monitoring of critical process parameters, transparent communication between the system and the analyzer also plays a decisive role in terms of maintenance measures. The collection of vital data from the analyzer to assess the state of the system is only one component. The continuous monitoring of relevant system components enables conclusions to be drawn about any necessary maintenance work. For example, routine checks on the condition of the electrodes (slope / zero point check, possibly automatic calibration) are carried out regularly during the analysis process. Based on the data, calibration and cleaning processes are performed fully automatically, which allow robust measurement even at measuring points that are difficult to access or in aggressive process media. This means that the operator is outside the danger zone, which contributes to increased safety.

Summary

The linking of production processes with digital technology holds a particularly large potential and contributes to the economic security of companies. In addition, the pressure is growing steadily for companies to face the demands of digitalization in production. As an example, in the area of ​​fermentation processes, the survival of the microorganisms is ensured by closely monitoring relevant parameters. Intelligent systems increase the degree of automation and can make the process along the entire value chain more efficient.

Find out in the next installment how functional safety concepts help to act before a worst case scenario comes true where errors occur and systems fail.

Want to learn more about the history of process analysis technology at Metrohm? Check out our previous blog posts:

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Post written by Dr. Kerstin Dreblow, Product Manager Wet Chemical Process Analyzers, Deutsche Metrohm Prozessanalytik (Germany).