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«Analyze This»: 2020 in review

«Analyze This»: 2020 in review

I wanted to end 2020 by thanking all of you for making «Analyze This» – the Metrohm blog for chemists such a success! For our 60th blog post, I’d like to look back and focus on the wealth of interesting topics we have published this year. There is truly something for everyone: it doesn’t matter whether your lab focuses on titration or spectroscopic techniques, or analyzes water samples or illicit substances – we’ve got you covered! If you’re looking to answer your most burning chemical analysis questions, we have FAQs and other series full of advice from the experts. Or if you’re just in the mood to learn something new in a few minutes, there are several posts about the chemical world to discover.

We love to hear back from you as well. Leaving comments on your favorite blog posts or contacting us through social media are great ways to voice your opinion—we at Metrohm are here for you!

Finally, I wish you and your families a safe, restful holiday season. «Analyze This» will return on January 11, 2021, so subscribe if you haven’t already done so, and bookmark this page for an overview of all of our articles grouped by topic!

Stay healthy, and stay curious.

Best wishes,

Dr. Alyson Lanciki, Scientific Editor, Metrohm AG

Quickly jump directly to any section by clicking a topic:

Customer Stories

We are curious by nature, and enjoy hearing about the variety of projects where our products are being used! For some examples of interesting situations where Metrohm analytical equipment is utilized, read on.

From underwater archaeological research to orbiting Earth on the International Space Station, Metrohm is there! We assist on all types of projects, like brewing top quality beers and even growing antibiotic-free shrimp – right here in Switzerland.

Interested in being featured? Contact your local Metrohm dealer for details!

Titration

Metrohm is the global market leader in analytical instruments for titration. Who else is better then to advise you in this area? Our experts are eager to share their knowledge with you, and show this with the abundance of topics they have contributed this year to our blog.

For more in-depth information about obtaining the most accurate pH measurements, take a look at our FAQ about pH calibration or read about avoiding the most common mistakes in pH measurement. You may pick up a few tips!

Choose the best electrode for your needs and keep it in top condition with our best practices, and then learn how to standardize titrant properly. Better understand what to consider during back-titration, check out thermometric titration and its advantages and applications, or read about the most common challenges and how to overcome them when carrying out complexometric titrations

If you are interested in improving your conductivity measurements, measuring dissolved oxygen, or the determination of oxidation in edible fats and oils, check out these blog posts and download our free Application Notes and White Papers!

Finally, this article about comprehensive water analysis with a combination of titration and ion chromatography explains the many benefits for laboratories with large sample loads. The history behind the TitrIC analysis system used for these studies can be found in a separate blog post.

Karl Fischer Titration

Metrohm and Karl Fischer titration: a long history of success. Looking back on more than half a century of experience in KFT, Metrohm has shaped what coulometric and volumetric water analysis are today.

Aside from the other titration blog posts, our experts have also written a 2-part series including 20 of the most frequently asked questions for KFT arranged into three categories: instrument preparation and handling, titration troubleshooting, and the oven technique. Our article about how to properly standardize Karl Fischer titrant will take you step by step through the process to obtain correct results.

For more specific questions, read about the oven method for sample preparation, or which is the best technique to choose when measuring moisture in certain situations: Karl Fischer titration, near-infrared spectroscopy, or both?

Ion Chromatography (IC)

Ion chromatography has been a part of the Metrohm portfolio since the late 1980s. From routine IC analysis to research and development, and from stand-alone analyzers to fully automated systems, Metrohm has provided IC solutions for all situations. If you’re curious about the backstory of R&D, check out the ongoing series about the history of IC at Metrohm.

Metrohm IC user sitting at a laboratory bench.

Common questions for users are answered in blog posts about IC column tips and tricks and Metrohm inline ultrafiltration. Clear calculations showing how to increase productivity and profitability in environmental analysis with IC perfectly complement our article about comprehensive water analysis using IC and titration together for faster sample throughput.

On the topic of foods and beverages, you can find out how to determine total sulfite faster and easier than ever, measure herbicides in drinking water, or even learn how Metrohm IC is used in Switzerland to grow shrimp!

Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS)

Metrohm NIRS analyzers for the lab and for process analysis enable you to perform routine analysis quickly and with confidence – without requiring sample preparation or additional reagents and yielding results in less than a minute. Combining visible (Vis) and near-infrared (NIR) spectroscopy, these analyzers are capable of performing qualitative analysis of various materials and quantitative analysis of a number of physical and chemical parameters in one run.

Our experts have written all about the benefits of NIR spectroscopy in a 4-part series, which includes an explanation of the advantages of NIRS over conventional wet chemical analysis methods, differences between NIR and IR spectroscopy, how to implement NIRS in your laboratory workflow, and examples of how pre-calibrations make implementation even quicker.

A comparison between NIRS and the Karl Fischer titration method for moisture analysis is made in a dedicated article.

A 2-part FAQ about NIRS has also been written in a collaboration between our laboratory and process analysis colleagues, covering all kinds of questions related to both worlds.

Raman Spectroscopy

This latest addition to the Metrohm family expands the Metrohm portfolio to include novel, portable instruments for materials identification and verification. We offer both Metrohm Raman as well as B&W Tek products to cover a variety of needs and requirements.

Here you can find out some of the history of Raman spectroscopy including the origin story behind Mira, the handheld Raman instrument from Metrohm Raman. For a real-world situation involving methamphetamine identification by law enforcement and first responders, read about Mira DS in action – detecting drugs safely in the field.

Mira - handheld Raman keeping you safe in hazardous situations.

Are you looking for an easier way to detect food fraud? Our article about Misa describes its detection capabilities and provides several free Application Notes for download.

Process Analytics

We cater to both: the laboratory and the production floor. The techniques and methods for laboratory analysis are also available for automated in-process analysis with the Metrohm Process Analytics brand of industrial process analyzers.

Learn about how Metrohm became pioneers in the process world—developing the world’s first online wet chemistry process analyzer, and find out how Metrohm’s modular IC expertise has been used to push the limits in the industrial process optimization.

Additionally, a 2-part FAQ has been written about near-infrared spectroscopy by both laboratory and process analysis experts, which is helpful when starting out or even if you’re an advanced user.

Finally, we offer a 3-part series about the advantages of process analytical technology (PAT) covering the topics of process automation advantages, digital networking of production plants, and error and risk minimization in process analysis.

Voltammetry (VA)

Voltammetry is an electrochemical method for the determination of trace and ultratrace concentrations of heavy metals and other electrochemically active substances. Both benchtop and portable options are available with a variety of electrodes to choose from, allowing analysis in any situation.

A 5-part series about solid-state electrodes covers a range of new sensors suitable for the determination of «heavy metals» using voltammetric methods. This series offers information and example applications for the Bi drop electrode, scTrace Gold electrode (as well as a modified version), screen-printed electrodes, and the glassy carbon rotating disc electrode.

Come underwater with Metrohm and Hublot in our blog post as they try to find the missing pieces of the ancient Antikythera Mechanism in Greece with voltammetry.

If you’d like to learn about the combination of voltammetry with ion chromatography and the expanded application capabilities, take a look at our article about combined analysis techniques.

Electrochemistry (EC)

Electrochemistry plays an important role in groundbreaking technologies such as battery research, fuel cells, and photovoltaics. Metrohm’s electrochemistry portfolio covers everything from potentiostats/galvanostats to accessories and software.

Our two subsidiaries specializing in electrochemistry, Metrohm Autolab (Utrecht, Netherlands) and Metrohm DropSens (Asturias, Spain) develop and produce a comprehensive portfolio of electrochemistry equipment.

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has been at the top of the news, and with it came the discussion of testing – how reliable or accurate was the data? In our blog post about virus detection with screen-printed electrodes, we explain the differences between different testing methods and their drawbacks, the many benefits of electrochemical testing methods, and provide a free informative White Paper for interested laboratories involved in this research.

Our electrochemistry instruments have also gone to the International Space Station as part of a research project to more efficiently recycle water on board spacecraft for long-term missions.

The History of…

Stories inspire people, illuminating the origins of theories, concepts, and technologies that we may have become to take for granted. Metrohm aims to inspire chemists—young and old—to be the best and never stop learning. Here, you can find our blog posts that tell the stories behind the scenes, including the Metrohm founder Bertold Suhner.

Bertold Suhner, founder of Metrohm.

For more history behind the research and development behind Metrohm products, take a look at our series about the history of IC at Metrohm, or read about how Mira became mobile. If you are more interested in process analysis, then check out the story about the world’s first process analyzer, built by Metrohm Process Analytics.

Need something lighter? Then the 4-part history of chemistry series may be just what you’re looking for.

Specialty Topics

Some articles do not fit neatly into the same groups as the rest, but are nonetheless filled with informative content! Here you can find an overview of Metrohm’s free webinars, grouped by measurement technique.

If you work in a regulated industry such as pharmaceutical manufacturing or food and beverage production, don’t miss our introduction to Analytical Instrument Qualification and what it can mean for consumer safety!

Industry-focused

Finally, if you are more interested in reading articles related to the industry you work in, here are some compilations of our blog posts in various areas including pharmaceutical, illicit substances, food and beverages, and of course water analysis. More applications and information can be found on our website.

Food and beverages
All of these products can be measured for total sulfite content.

Oxidation stability is an estimate of how quickly a fat or oil will become rancid. It is a standard parameter of quality control in the production of oils and fats in the food industry or for the incoming goods inspection in processing facilities. To learn more about how to determine if your edible oils are rancid, read our blog post.

Determining total sulfite in foods and beverages has never been faster or easier than with our IC method. Read on about how to perform this notoriously frustrating analysis and get more details in our free LC/GC The Column article available for download within.

Measuring the true sodium content in foodstuff directly and inexpensively is possible using thermometric titration, which is discussed in more detail here. To find out the best way to determine moisture content in foods, our experts have written a blog post about the differences between Karl Fischer titration and near-infrared spectroscopy methods.

To determine if foods, beverages, spices, and more are adulterated, you no longer have to wait for the lab. With Misa, it is possible to measure a variety of illicit substances in complex matrices within minutes, even on the go.

All of these products can be measured for total sulfite content.

Making high quality products is a subject we are passionate about. This article discusses improving beer brewing practices and focuses on the tailor-made system built for Feldschlösschen, Switzerland’s largest brewer.

Pharmaceutical / healthcare

Like the food sector, pharmaceutical manufacturing is a very tightly regulated industry. Consumer health is on the line if quality drops.

Ensuring that the analytical instruments used in the production processes are professionally qualified is a must, especially when auditors come knocking. Find out more about this step in our blog post about Analytical Instrument Qualification (AIQ).

Moisture content in the excipients, active ingredients, and in the final product is imperative to measure. This can be accomplished with different analytical methods, which we compare and contrast for you here.

The topic of virus detection has been on the minds of everyone this year. In this blog post, we discuss virus detection based on screen-printed electrodes, which are a more cost-effective and customizable option compared to other conventional techniques.

Water analysis

Water is our business. From trace analysis up to high concentration determinations, Metrohm has you covered with a variety of analytical measurement techniques and methods developed by the experts.

Learn how to increase productivity and profitability in environmental analysis laboratories with IC with a real life example and cost calculations, or read about how one of our customers in Switzerland uses automated Metrohm IC to monitor the water quality in shrimp breeding pools.

If heavy metal analysis is what you are interested in, then you may find our 5-part series about trace analysis with solid-state electrodes very handy.

Unwanted substances may find their way into our water supply through agricultural practices. Find out an easier way to determine herbicides in drinking water here!

Water is arguably one of the most important ingredients in the brewing process. Determination of major anions and cations along with other parameters such as alkalinity are described in our blog post celebrating International Beer Day.

All of these products can be measured for total sulfite content.
Illicit / harmful substances

When you are unsure if your expensive spices are real or just a colored powder, if your dairy products have been adulterated with melamine, or fruits and vegetables were sprayed with illegal pesticides, it’s time to test for food fraud. Read our blog post about simple, fast determination of illicit substances in foods and beverages for more information.

Detection of drugs, explosives, and other illegal substances can be performed safely by law enforcement officers and first responders without the need for a lab or chemicals with Mira DS. Here you can read about a real life training to identify a methamphetamine laboratory.

Drinking water regulations are put in place by authorities out of concern for our health. Herbicides are important to measure in our drinking water as they have been found to be carcinogenic in many instances.

Post written by Dr. Alyson Lanciki, Scientific Editor at Metrohm International Headquarters, Herisau, Switzerland.

Electrochemistry in orbit

Electrochemistry in orbit

For over twenty years now, there has been continuous human occupation off our planet.

The International Space Station (ISS), launched in 1998, is a modular satellite in low orbit around the Earth, which is visible even with the naked eye.

Since November 2, 2000, the ISS has had a constantly revolving crew from a variety of nations, working on projects to further push the boundaries of our knowledge. Aside from their important scientific duties, these astronauts must live their daily lives like us – exercising, relaxing, cleaning, and sleeping – albeit in microgravity.

The International Space Station celebrated 20 years of constant habitation in November, 2020.

In October, an Antares rocket carrying a Cygnus resupply ship was launched by NASA at Johnson Space Center. This cargo ship carried an experimental system on board used to study the oxidation of ammonia under microgravity conditions to convert urine into water on the ISS.

Improving this waste management system has far-reaching repercussions for longer exploratory missions where the weight of the payload must be optimized with the amount of water needed (which is heavy) to sustain life during the trip. Given the limited resources aboard a spaceship, the recovery of water from all processes is of great importance.

Future missions which may benefit from this study include trips to the moon (Artemis) and eventually to Mars (Orion).

This system uses Metrohm DropSens screen-printed electrodes (SPEs). The novel nanomaterial coating of the electrodes was developed by researchers at the University of Alicante in Spain in collaboration with the University of Puerto Rico. In this article, we would like to introduce the people behind the project and elaborate on the research they are doing in space with Metrohm products.

Meet the researchers

Dr. José Solla Gullón (Ph.D. 2003, Chemistry)

Dr. José Solla Gullón in his laboratory at the University of Alicante, with Metrohm DropSens and Metrohm Autolab products on the bench.

I am currently a Distinguished Researcher at the Institute of Electrochemistry of the University of Alicante, Spain. My research mainly focuses on the synthesis, characterization and electrochemical properties of different types of nanoparticles with well-defined size, composition, shape, and surface structure. My overall publication record includes about 175 publications (h-index 53). I have also given more than 250 contributions in international and national meetings.

Ms. Camila Morales Navas

Camila Morales Navas holding the Nanoracks 2U, where the electrochemical equipment is kept inside.

I am a senior graduate student in the Department of Chemistry at University of Puerto Rico (UPR). I am working on a research project in collaboration with NASA, titled «Elucidating the Ammonia Electrochemical Oxidation Mechanism via Electrochemical Techniques at the ISS», or «Ammonia Electrooxidation Lab at the ISS (AELISS)» for short. The purpose of this project is to improve the water processing system and to identify new technology for long-term missions in space.

The project is attributed to NASA-ESPCoR, University of Puerto Rico, University of Alicante, NuVant Systems, and Nanoracks, with support from Metrohm DropSens.

Read more about the project on the NASA website:

The AELISS project

For a brief overview by Camila and her graduate advisor, have a look at the video provided below by NASA:

Here, you can see the Metrohm DropSens instruments used for this study: the screen-printed carbon electrode (SPCE8X110) and its corresponding flow-cell (FLWCL8X1C).

The Metrohm DropSens 8X110 carbon SPE (left) and the FLWCL8X1C flow-cell (right).
Instrumentation setup for the AELISS project which was launched to the ISS in October, 2020.

How did the AELISS project begin?

About five years ago, the groups from the University of Alicante and the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) began working together on microgravity experiments which led them to collaborate again for this project, which now resides on the ISS.

The electrochemical oxidation of ammonia using platinum as a catalyst is a well-established reaction, first published almost two decades ago by José’s group. The ammonia is extremely sensitive to the surface structure of platinum. However, this is well-known on earth. How does this reaction process behave in a microgravity environment? The groups sought to determine this by performing experiments in the US using a special airplane which mimics weightlessness for brief periods by flying in a parabolic motion.

SPE modification process: droplets of platinum nanoparticle ink provided by the University of Alicante deposited on the carbon SPEs. Platinum acts as a catalyst for the oxidation reaction. Click image to enlarge.

At first, this was purely for research, but later Camila’s group in Puerto Rico thought more about its potential use in space. Urea from urine is converted to ammonia, which then goes through the electrochemical oxidation process, resulting in N2 gas, water, and energy. Perhaps it was possible to use this technology to improve the onboard water recovery and recycling system in the ISS and other spaceships?

Because the UPR group often writes research proposals that are funded by NASA, they are quite knowledgeable in this area regarding the project requirements, as well as what materials are allowed on board a mission. The UPR group has been working in conjunction with NASA for about 20 years.

Unassembled equipment: plastic protector frame (grey), Metrohm DropSens FLWCL8X1C electrochemical flow-cells with 8X110 carbon SPEs (blue/white), and Nanoracks 2U (green). Click image to enlarge.

Combining the expertise in ammonia oxidation research from José’s lab in Spain with the knowledge of Camila’s group in Puerto Rico about NASA’s engineering and safety requirements made the construction and realization of the complex AELISS project possible. However, launching something to the ISS isn’t without its issues…

Has the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant effect on the research? 

Camila Morales Navas assembling the AELISS equipment in the UPR laboratory. Click image to enlarge.

Aside from the usual problems and delays that can pop up during collaborative research projects, the introduction of a global pandemic at the last stages did not help the situation. The COVID-19 pandemic affected the timeline of the AELISS project, especially when it came to traveling and working within the extremely regulated environment of NASA. Additionally, Puerto Rico had already dealt with several large earthquakes and hurricanes in this period.

Keeping each other on track became difficult at times, particularly when Camila had to bring the entire setup back home to finish the engineering. In June, she was able to return to the laboratory and complete the project. However, the stressful part was not yet over because there was still a flight to NASA in the US, and with that the ever present threat of COVID-19 infection during travel.

One positive test result would mean a denial of entry – there can be no chance of infecting the ISS crew.

Ultimately, everything went to plan before and during the launch, and the instrumentation was sent to the International Space Station in October along with other precious cargo for the astronauts. Now that this part of the puzzle is finished, the rest of the work begins…

How will AELISS differ from similar experiments on Earth?

The final goal of this research is to determine how gravity affects the oxidation of ammonia, and also to test out different catalysts for the reaction in microgravity. While several other parameters can be adjusted in the lab such as pH, nanoparticle shape, and more – gravity is a universal constraint we cannot avoid. On Earth, we are only able to mimic the effects of microgravity for a few seconds with freefall. The previous collaboration between the groups in this project also involved performing experiments on special flights that allowed weightless conditions for less than 15 seconds at a time. This is certainly not enough time to draw long-term conclusions, and hence the push to launch the project into orbit. Only then can a true comparison be made, and conclusions drawn about the effects of gravity and the future applicability of this technology.

Dr. José Solla Gullón shown in his lab at the University of Alicante depositing Pt nanocubes on the 8X110 substrates which are used in the FLWCL8X1C electrochemical cell. Click image to enlarge.

One of the major concerns regarding this project is to achieve the most efficient conversion of waste urine into usable water for long-term space missions. Here, water recycling is a critical point. Also, it is important to note that the product of the oxidation of ammonia is nitrogen gas, but the behavior of gases is not the same on Earth as in space. Understanding how the N2 bubbles behave in the absence of gravity is a critical step to study.

Camila’s doctoral research project aims to answer these questions and more, using the realistic conditions of space rather than short periods of weightlessness in flight. So how did the researchers come to use Metrohm products?

There’s Something About Metrohm

So, why choose Metrohm over other providers? I asked José and Camila just what it was that drew them to our products.

«In my case, I have been working with Metrohm DropSens for many, many years. We have a very good collaboration, not only in the in the case of the nanomaterials, but also in the electrochemical cells, and the use of the screen-printed electrodes for electroanalysis. So, we have a very long history together

Dr. José Solla Gullón

Distinguished Researcher at the Institute of Electrochemistry, University of Alicante

Additionally, José mentioned that it was the fact that the electrochemical cells from Metrohm DropSens were very small, perfectly fitting into their conceptual system, which was another critical point. In fact, only cosmetic changes were needed to the products to be used in this project – all of the used materials were already approved for use by NASA..

For Camila, this was her first time using these products, and she found their out-of-the-box usage incredibly helpful.

«This was my first experience since José suggested it. And I trust them because they’re the people that really know about this subject

Camila Morales Navas

Senior graduate student in the Department of Chemistry, University of Puerto Rico

In the past, José has asked Metrohm DropSens several times to custom design SPEs for his research needs, and has always found them responsive and agreeable.

«I know that I can send an email and in two hours, I will have some response. This is wonderful for me. They are always open to new solutions

Dr. José Solla Gullón

Distinguished Researcher at the Institute of Electrochemistry, University of Alicante

We wish the very best to the research groups behind the ambitious AELISS project at the University of Puerto Rico and the University of Alicante. We at Metrohm are proud that our products can contribute to space exploration.

Post written by Dr. Alyson Lanciki, Scientific Editor at Metrohm International Headquarters, Herisau, Switzerland.

Special thanks go to Dr. José Solla Gullón and Ms. Camila Morales Navas for their important research and taking time to contribute to this article.

Exposing secrets of ancient Greek civilization through chemistry

Exposing secrets of ancient Greek civilization through chemistry

This week, learn the story of how analytical instrumentation from Metrohm helps underwater archaeology locate hidden treasures beneath the seafloor.

 

Antikythera Mechanism: a machine lost to time

One of the most fascinating items ever salvaged from an ancient shipwreck is the so-called «Antikythera Mechanism». More than 2000 years old, this magnificent piece of mechanical engineering forced the scientific community to rewrite the history of science as it became clear that its unknown maker must have possessed knowledge and skills that were believed to simply not exist in the 1st century BC.

Figure 1. Digital reconstruction of the Antikythera Mechanism.

The Antikythera Mechanism was a complex and highly precise lunar and solar calendar that could also predict solar and lunar eclipses as well as the future dates of the Panhellenic Games. The complexity and precision of this machine inspired not only scientists but also Hublot, the Swiss brand famous for their luxury watches. Not only did Hublot recreate the Antikythera Mechanism in a wristwatch but they also started their own underwater archaeology program. This project of Hublot is fascinating—and we from Metrohm are part of it on every dive.

 The device was retrieved from an ancient shipwreck (70 BC) found off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901. Since then, researchers have tried to get to the bottom of its mysteries. Dated to approximately 100 BC, the Antikythera Mechanism was a shockingly complex piece of machinery, the likes of which were not seen elsewhere for at least another millennium.

One of the challenges faced by underwater archeology is the fact that the cargo and debris of ancient shipwrecks is often randomly scattered across vast areas on the seafloor and also often covered by sediments. Because only fragments of the mechanism have been found and recovered, retrieving the missing pieces of the Antikythera Mechanism would be a scientific sensation.

Figure 2. Location where the Antikythera Mechanism was found in 1901 at a shipwreck in Greece.

As divers can only operate for very limited time spans at depths below 50 meters, drones are needed to investigate larger areas on the seafloor at such depths. Hublot’s engineers have built drones for this purpose, known as «Bubblots», and have equipped them with miniaturized voltammetric measuring stands from Metrohm.

«With a metal detector, all you get is «beep-beep-beep», which means there is metal around. However, in a bronze statue, there is copper, there is tin, and you have to detect the oxides of them, the exact kind of material you are facing. We have decided for Metrohm, because you are the most competent for the measuring technology we need in our drones.»

Mathias Buttet

R&D Director, Hublot

The Bubblots are utilized to perform real-time analyses of the seawater for unusual concentrations of dissolved metal salts typically associated with corroding bronze artefacts. Thus, the systematic and highly selective investigation of larger areas of seafloor for historical bronze artefacts becomes feasible.

Figure 3. Hublot’s underwater drones, known as «Bubblots», and the voltammetric measuring stand from Metrohm.

Voltammetry to the rescue

Due to its selectivity regarding different metals and their oxidation states, voltammetry is ideally suited for such investigations, as it is also very fast and robust technique. In the case of Hublot’s drones, results are obtained in a few seconds and this information can be immediately processed.

«We use this Metrohm instrument for voltammetric measurements. We take a water sample and do a live measurement of the aspirated water. The voltammetric measurement takes only a few seconds. This is enough to give us an idea of the different metals present in the solution. This allows us to do highly selective measurements very fast to cover different regions of the archaeological site.»

Sébastien Recalcati

Materials Engineer, Hublot

For a selection of free Metrohm Application Notes related to voltammetric measurements in seawater, visit our website!

Figure 4. The 910 PSTAT mini from Metrohm used in the study.
Figure 5. One of Metrohm’s disposable screen printed electrodes (SPEs) utilized in Hublot’s drone analysis of the seafloor.

Giving the Antikythera Mechanism a second life

The maker of this mechanism was far ahead of his time. He must have had skills and possessed scientific knowledge that are mind-boggling even today. The watchmakers from Hublot were inspired by this to a very special project: they rebuilt the Antikythera Mechanism in a wristwatch.

«The original Antikythera Mechanism has the size of a shoe box. Reducing the size of the mechanism and putting it into a wrist watch was not so easy. Because the Antikythera Mechanism was not a clock, it was a machine with a driving crank to show the position of the moon and the sun in relation to the stars at any given date. The absolute dream is to find the missing parts of the machine. But the debris is hidden below the seafloor, covered by sediments, one meter, sometimes two meters.»

Mathias Buttet

R&D Director, Hublot

Figure 6. The Antikythera Mechanism miniaturized and captured in a Hublot wristwatch.

We are glad to support Hublot’s archaeological mission with our analytical instruments and our expertise in chemical analysis. Metrohm wishes the Hublot team all the best.

Visit our website to learn more

about this fascinating project and to discover more related applications from Metrohm

Post written by Dr. Alyson Lanciki, Scientific Editor at Metrohm International Headquarters, Herisau, Switzerland.

Forewarned is Forearmed: Error and risk minimization in process analysis – Part 3

Forewarned is Forearmed: Error and risk minimization in process analysis – Part 3

In the course of life, each of us learns to trust our gut feelings or our experiences to avoid situations that seem dangerous or risky. You quite literally sense potential dangers with an uneasy feeling. Who hasn’t painfully learned that touching a hot stove top isn’t a good idea? Or who voluntarily goes outside during a tornado?

While humans can rely on their intuition and learned patterns to avoid dangers or use protective strategies, this is far more complicated with electronic systems or machines. All components of a system must be in a permanently safe state. Failures and malfunctions of individual components can have devastating consequences for production processes and the safety of the operators.

An example of this is the Seveso disaster in 1976, in which highly toxic dioxin TCDD escaped as a result of an uncontrolled reaction, and sustainably poisoned flora and fauna. With regard to other major chemical accidents, the European Seveso III Directive then came into force in 2012 to control major accident hazards to prevent major accidents.

Have you read Part 1 and Part 2 of our «Advantages of PAT (Process Analytical Technology)» series? If not, find them here!

Recognize, master, and avoid errors

Process engineering systems that are operated continuously contain countless components that can wear out or fail during their life cycle. However, if the measuring, control, or regulating circuit is affected, failures can cause immense damage. Under no circumstances should humans nor the environment be exposed to any kind of danger. For this reason, the functional safety of the components must be guaranteed, and their risk and hazard potential must be analyzed in detail.

The service life of mechanical components can be evaluated by observing mechanical wear and tear. However, the aging behavior of electronic components is difficult to assess. A unit of measure that makes risk reduction and thus functional safety quantifiable is the so-called «Safety Integrity Level» (SIL). 

The following procedure is followed:

  1.   Risk analysis
  2.   Realization of risk reduction
  3.   Evidence that the realized risk reduction corresponds at least to the required risk reduction

«Process analysis systems are part of the entire safety cycle of a manufacturing plant and therefore only one component whose risk of malfunctions and failures must be considered in an assessment.»

Risk assessmentA process is considered safe if the current risk has been reduced below the level of the tolerable risk. If safety is ensured by technical measures, one speaks of functional safety.

Significance for process analysis systems

Errors can happen anywhere, and can never be completely excluded. To minimize possible errors, it is therefore necessary to estimate the risk of occurrence and the damage to be expected from it as part of a risk analysis. A distinction must be made here between systematic and random errors.

Systematic errors are potentially avoidable and are caused, for example, by software errors or configuration deficiencies. Accordingly, they already exist during or prior to commissioning.

In contrast, random errors are potentially difficult to avoid because they occur arbitrarily. Nevertheless, the error rate or failure probability can be determined statistically and experimentally.

Random errors usually result from the hardware and occur during operation. Ultimately, systematic errors should be avoided, and random errors should be mastered to ensure trouble-free functionality.

Process analysis systems are the link between manual laboratory analysis and the industrial process. In applications where continuous and fully automatic monitoring of critical parameters is required, process analyzers are indispensable. Due to the different analysis conditions in the laboratory and directly in the process, there are some challenges when transferring the measurement technology from the lab to the process. The decisive factors are the working and environmental conditions (e.g., high temperatures, corrosive atmospheres, moisture, dust, or potentially explosive environments) which the process analyzers have to meet regarding their design, construction materials, and reliability of the components. The analyzer automatically and continuously transmits system and diagnostic data to prevent hardware or software components from failing through preventive measures. This significantly reduces the chance of random errors occurring.

General process analyzer setup

a) Analyzer Setup

Process analyzers have been specially developed for use in harsh and aggressive industrial environments. The IP66 protected housing is divided into two parts, and consists of separate wet and electronic parts. The electronics part contains all components relevant to control and operate the process analyzer. Modular components like burettes, valves, pumps, sampling systems, titration vessels, and electrodes can be found in the analyzer wet part. Representative samples can thus be taken from the process measuring point several meters away. The analysis procedure, the methods to be used, and method calculations are freely programmable.

A touchscreen with intuitive menu navigation allows easy operation, so that production processes can be optimized at any time. The course of the measurement is graphically represented and documented over the entire determination, so that the analysis process is completely controlled. The measurement results can be generated 24/7 and allow close and fully automatic monitoring of the process. Limits, alarms, or results are reliably transferred to the process control system.

When operating the analyzer, there is a risk that software errors can lead to failures. In order to recognize this with foresight, the system delivers self-diagnostic procedures as soon as it is powered on and also during operation. This includes, e.g., checking pumps and burettes, checking for leaks, or checking the communication between the I/O controller, the human interface, and the respective analysis module.

b) Sensors

The central component of a process analyzer is the measurement technique in use. In the case of sensors or electrodes, there are several requirements such as chemical resistance, ease of maintenance, robustness, or precision which they must meet. The safety-related risk arises from the possibility if measurement sensors fail due to aging, or if they become damaged and subsequently deliver incorrect measurement results.

Failure of the electrode, contamination, or damage must be reported immediately. With online analysis systems, the analysis is performed in an external measuring cell. In addition, recurring calibration and conditioning routines are predefined and are performed automatically. The status of the electrode is continuously monitored by the system.

Between measurements, the electrode is immersed in a membrane-friendly storage solution that prevents drying out and at the same time regenerates the swelling layer. The electrode is therefore always ready for use and does not have to be removed from the process for maintenance. This enables reliable process control even under harsh industrial conditions.

c) Analysis

Process analyzers must be able to handle samples for analysis over a wide concentration range (from % down to trace levels) without causing carry-over or cross-sensitivity issues. In many cases, different samples from several measuring points are determined in parallel in one system using different analysis techniques. The sample preparation (e.g., filtering, diluting, or wet chemical digestion) must be just as reliable and smooth as the fully automatic transfer of results to the process control system so that a quick response is possible.

Potential dangers for the entire system can be caused by incorrect measurement results. In order to minimize the risk, a detector is used to notify the system of the presence of sample in the vessel. The testing of the initial potential of the analysis or titration curves / color development in photometric measurements are diagnostic data that are continuously recorded and interpreted. Results can be verified by reference analysis or their plausibility can be clarified using standard and check solutions.

Detect errors before they arise

The risk assessment procedures that are carried out in the context of a SIL classification for process engineering plants are ultimately based on mathematical calculations. However, in the 24/7 operation of a plant, random errors can never be completely excluded. Residual risk always remains. Therefore, the importance of preventive maintenance activities is growing immensely in order to avoid hardware and software failures during operation.

A regular check of the process analyzer and its diagnostic data is the basic requirement for permanent, trouble-free operation. With tailor-made maintenance and service concepts, the analyzer is supported by certified service engineers over the entire life cycle. Regular maintenance plans, application support, calibration, or performance certificates, repairs, and original spare parts as well as proper commissioning are just a few examples.

Advantages of preventive maintenance from Metrohm Process Analytics

  • Preservation of your investment
  • Minimized risk of failure
  • Reliable measurement results
  • Calculable costs
  • Original spare parts
  • Fast repair
  • Remote Support

In addition, transparent communication between the process control system and the analyzer is also relevant in the context of digitalization. The collection of performance data from the analyzer to assess the state of the control system is only one component. The continuous monitoring of relevant system components enables conclusions to be drawn about any necessary maintenance work, which ideally should be carried out at regular intervals. The question arises as to how the collected data is interpreted and how quickly it is necessary to intervene. Software care packages help to test the software according to the manufacturer’s specifications, to perform data backup and software maintenance.

«Remote support is particularly important in times when you cannot always be on site.»

In real emergency situations in which rapid error analysis is required, manufacturers can easily support the operator remotely using remote maintenance solutions. The system availability is increased, expensive failures and downtimes are avoided, and the optimal performance of the analyzer is ensured.

Read what our customers have to say!

We have supported customers even in the most unlikely of places⁠—from the production floor to the desert and even on active ships!

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

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. Check it out here!

Read what our customers have to say!

We have supported customers even in the most unlikely of places⁠—from the production floor to the desert and even on active ships!

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