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Decarbonizing chemical processes with Thor

Decarbonizing chemical processes with Thor

The chemical manufacturing industry consumes approximately 10% of the energy produced worldwide and is responsible for more than 5% of global carbon emissions. Nearly all chemicals are synthesized using thermal energy generated by fossil fuel combustion, leading to the significant carbon footprint from this sector. What if there was a way to reduce the carbon footprint without requiring significant amounts of energy or high costs? That is where the 2021 Metrohm Young Chemist Award winner, Ryan Jansonius, comes in.

Ryan Jansonius is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia and a co-founder of ThorTech. He received his BSc (Hons) in Chemistry from the University of Calgary in 2016. He then went on to work at the Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation, a subsidiary of Ford and Daimler, developing ion exchange membranes for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. His research in the Berlinguette group at UBC has centered around developing technologies that use inexpensive and abundant renewable electricity to drive otherwise environmentally costly chemical transformations. ThorTech is bringing to market a unique membrane reactor technology that uses water and electricity to hydrogenate molecules relevant to the biofuel, pharmaceutical, and specialty chemical industries.

The Metrohm Young Chemist Award

Metrohm values the spirit of innovation and believes in the value of novel research performed by pioneering young scientists. At Metrohm USA, the tradition of holding a yearly contest for early career researchers has gone on for nearly a decade! Every year, between 50 and 75 entries are received to try and win a grand prize of $10,000 USD.

A panel of judges from inside and outside of the company reviews the submissions and scores the applicants’ responses to the questions on the application. Finalists are then asked a series of follow up questions from the judges and asked to summarize their role in the work and its future potential. A winner is chosen, who then presents their research at PITTCON. Watch Ryan’s presentation at PITTCON 2021 below!

Past winners of the MYCA  have gone on to continue their research and broaden their horizons using the prize money to do things they otherwise would have had to pass on.

Learn more about the Metrohm Young Chemist Award here! Applicants do not have to use Metrohm instrumentation to be considered, and it plays no part in winner selection.

Decarbonizing the chemical industry

Ryan’s doctoral research at UBC focuses on finding ways to decarbonize chemical manufacturing. The production of fuels, plastics, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, and specialty chemicals consumes a significant amount of energy and is responsible for 5% of all greenhouse gas emissions. By developing ways to produce these useful chemicals using only abundant feedstocks and renewable electricity, there is an opportunity to offset these emissions.

To decarbonize chemical processes, Ryan and his group are developing a reactor that can use renewable electricity to drive chemical reactions that would otherwise require fossil fuel inputs. The type of reaction they are targeting is called «hydrogenation», and it is used in about 25% of all chemical manufacturing across several industries. Hydrogenation is a simple chemical process where hydrogen atoms are added to an unsaturated chemical feedstock.

Normally, this requires high pressure, high temperature hydrogen gas to achieve, which is extremely dangerous to handle. Conventional technology requires capital intensive hydrogenation plants for this purpose and has not changed for nearly a century.

The reactor, called «Thor», produces hydrogen through the electrolysis of water, which then passes through a thin membrane and hydrogenates an organic feedstock. What makes Thor unique is the use of a palladium membrane as a cathode, hydrogen-selective membrane, and hydrogenation catalyst simultaneously. This architecture enables the electrolysis to proceed in aqueous electrolyte while hydrogenation is mediated in organic solvent. Both reactions proceed efficiently as a result.

Team Thor (left to right): Ryan Jansonius, Natalie LeSage, Roxanna Delima, Mia Stankovic. Not pictured: Arthur Fink, Camden Hunt, Aoxue Huang, and Aiko Kurimoto. The technological innovation is defined by the large number of female group members, as shown by their lead authorship on several peer-reviewed articles (listed at the bottom of the page).

This process circumvents the use of fossil-derived H2, and the natural gas heaters required for conventional thermochemical hydrogenation reactors used industrially today. The ultimate goal is to use Thor to produce renewable diesel, pharmaceuticals, and a host of bio-derived specialty chemicals in a way that is cleaner, safer, and more cost-effective than conventional methods.

The legend of Thor(Tech)

Where did the name «Thor» originate?

Studying the palladium-hydrogen system led the Berlinguette research group to develop the Thor reactor in 2018. The inventor of the technology, Rebecca Sherbo (currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard), came up with this idea after studying the bizarre hydrogen absorption properties of palladium. The first setup and proof of concept was a tandem hydrogenation oxidation reactor. Now, instead of the paired electrolysis method they use water hydrolysis as a hydrogen source, but kept the great name to remind them of the history.

What is ThorTech? Ryan and his research team explain their project in a nutshell:

Earlier iterations of the prototype reactor developed by Ryan’s research group at UBC.

Potential commercial impact of greener technology

Thor solves key challenges with conventional hydrogenation methods by using water as a hydrogen source. Therefore, pressurized H2 gas is no longer required, which is challenging to handle and store. The reactivity of hydrogen atoms delivered to the organic feedstock in the reactor is on the order of hundreds of atmospheres. Hydrogen sourced from water can therefore be used to hydrogenate organic molecules without the use of dangerous reagents or high temperatures. Using electricity as the only energy input also enables the device to be carbon neutral if is coupled to a renewable electricity source.

A close-up view of the Thor benchtop reactor.
An expanded view of the internal parts in the flow cell.

Why choose Metrohm?

So, why choose Metrohm over other providers? I asked Ryan about his experiences with our line of potentiostats for his doctoral research in the Berlinguette lab group at UBC.

«All of the potentiostats that we use are Metrohm potentiostats in the lab. The only piece of fancy equipment or scientific equipment we need to run it [Thor] is a potentiostat. We have one big multichannel potentiostat with five or six individual channels in it, and we run all of our reactions off of that.»

Ryan Jansonius

MYCA 2021 Winner and Ph.D. Candidate, University of British Columbia

Learn more about Metrohm’s electrochemical instruments on our website!

A Metrohm Autolab Multichannel instrument. Each channel is a separate potentiostat/galvanostat module, allowing you to perform up to twelve measurements on just as many individual electrochemical cells.

«The thing that sets them apart from other potentiostats I’ve used is that the user interface is really good. The Metrohm software has a lot of default procedures and makes making custom procedures almost brainless, which is great.

You want to use your brain for the hard stuff, not the “set up the instrument” stuff.»

Ryan Jansonius

MYCA 2021 Winner and Ph.D. Candidate, University of British Columbia

We wholeheartedly agree! For more information about potentiostats from Metrohm Autolab, visit the website.

The next steps

The Thor team is currently working to develop membranes that use less palladium, designing flow cells to increase reaction rates and efficiency, and screening catalysts that enable a broader scope of feedstocks to be hydrogenated in Thor.

Dr. Aiko Kurimoto, a postdoctoral fellow on the Thor team has shown that depositing thin layers of different catalysts on the palladium cathode leads to substantially higher reactivities. This work was published in Angewandte Chemie (2021).

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has influenced research activities across the globe, and it is no different for our Metrohm Young Chemist Award winner. After spending nearly six months outside of the lab, social distancing measures made it difficult for Ryan to finish up his doctoral work. If an experiment failed, an entire week of work could be lost because of the need to stagger attendance. Ultimately, the team moved to a larger unoccupied space close by in order to continue their work.

How will the MYCA prize money be used?

After completing his doctorate, Ryan had planned to put all efforts into his start-up company ThorTech based on the research he contributed to. However, the transition from graduate researcher to start-up co-founder is quite an expensive one.

«It [the prize] couldn’t have come at a better time! I’m just now starting to appreciate how expensive transitioning [to industry] is.»

Ryan Jansonius

MYCA 2021 Winner and Ph.D. Candidate, University of British Columbia

He wants to take some time off to work on the company before investment capital comes in, and the prize money will be instrumental to help him do this. Additionally, a bit of rest and recharge is needed after finishing his degree!

Ryan defends his Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia in May 2021, and we wish him the very best of luck. To learn more about the research of Ryan and his team, selected peer-reviewed literature is provided below.

Selected literature for further reading:

  • Sherbo, R.S.; Delima, R.S.; Chiykowski, V.A.; et al. Complete electron economy by pairing electrolysis with hydrogenation. Nat. Catal. 2018, 1, 501–507. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41929-018-0083-8

    This is the first article published on the Thor reactor.

  • Sherbo, R.S.; Kurimoto, A.; Brown, C.M.; et al. Efficient Electrocatalytic Hydrogenation with a Palladium Membrane Reactor. JACS 2019, 141, 7815–782. https://doi.org/10.1021/jacs.9b01442

    Thor enables ~65% more energy efficient hydrogenation reactions than can be achieved using normal electrochemical hydrogenation methods.

  • Delima, R.S.; Sherbo, R.S.; Dvorak, D.J.; et al. Supported palladium membrane reactor architecture for electrocatalytic hydrogenation. J. Mater. Chem. A 2019, 7, 26586–26595. https://doi.org/10.1039/c9ta07957b

    This article describes a design for palladium membranes that uses 25x less palladium than conventional Pd foils.

  • Jansonius, R.P.; Kurimoto, A.; Marelli, A.M.; et al. Hydrogenation without H2 Using a Palladium Membrane Flow Cell. Cell Reports Physical Science, 2020, 1, 100105. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.xcrp.2020.100105

    This article shows a designed and validated scalable flow cell architecture, enabling 15x faster, and 2x more efficient hydrogenation reactions.

  • Huang, A.; Cao, Y.; Delima, R.S.; et al. Electrolysis Can Be Used to Resolve Hydrogenation Pathways at Palladium Surfaces in a Membrane Reactor. JACS Au 2021, 1, 336-343. https://doi.org/10.1021/jacsau.0c00051

    Thor can also be used to resolve complex reaction mechanisms by depositing nanoparticles on the surface of the membrane.

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

Special thanks go to Ryan Jansonius for taking the time before his doctoral defense to contribute to this article.

Fire and ice: discovering volcanic eruptions with ion chromatography

Fire and ice: discovering volcanic eruptions with ion chromatography

Some answers lie deep beneath the ice, waiting to be discovered.

Performing environmental chemistry research has taken me to the most remote places on Earth. In my doctoral studies, I was fortunate enough to handle samples from the South Pole and to perform my own research in Greenland, and later in Antarctica for my post-doc. What were we searching for, that took us to the middle of nowhere?

Volcanic eruptions are pretty unpredictable. Among the more active and aesthetic volcanoes with lava flows are Mount Etna in Catania (Italy), Kilauea on the large island of Hawaii (USA), and more recently Mount Fagradalsfjall in Iceland. When smaller events occur, people travel from all over to view this natural wonder. However, not all eruptions are equal…

Depending on a number of factors including the height of the eruption plume and the composition of the emissions, volcanic events can have quite a significant effect on the global climate. The Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) is a logarithmic scale used to measure the explosivity value of volcanic eruptions and categorize them from 0 (effusive) to 8 (mega-colossal). The largest of these events in the past century was the 1991 Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines (VEI 6, colossal). The cloud column reached high into the stratosphere, ejecting huge amounts of aerosols and gases, including sulfur dioxide (SO2) that scatter and absorb sunlight. This led to a measured global cooling effect for nearly two years after the eruption ended. Images of cloudless days at noon during this time showed a flat white hazy sky, indicative of the scattering effect of high-altitude sulfur aerosols.

Other large volcanic eruptions have led to periods of famine as well as enlightenment. It is said that the fantastic skies resulting from Krakatoa in 1883 (VEI 6, colossal) inspired Edvard Munch to paint his well-known masterpiece The Scream. If you’re familiar with Frankenstein, you can thank Mary Shelley for writing it during the wintry «year without a summer» in 1816, a result of the eruption of Mount Tambora (VEI 7, super-colossal).

Solving a mystery at the ends of the Earth

This cold period has been studied at length by several research groups and methodologies. In fact, the preceding decade had been found to be abnormally cool, however no record of another volcanic eruption was immediately apparent. Ultimately, it was pristine ice that held the clue that solved this mystery, and many others.

The sulfur dioxide emitted during volcanic eruptions is oxidized to sulfuric acid aerosols in the atmosphere, and depending on the height they reach, they can reside for days or even up to years. The deposition of volcanic sulfate on the polar ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland preserves a record of eruptions via the continuous accumulation of snow in these areas. Therefore, records of volcanic activity can be found in polar ice cores by measuring the amount of sulfate. A fantastic way to determine sulfate, along with other a suite of major anions and cations in aqueous samples even at trace levels is with ion chromatography (IC).

The author holding a 1-meter long ice core drilled in Summit Camp, Greenland (left) and Dome Concordia, Antarctica (right).

Of course, gases can also be measured as they are trapped in the spaces between snowflakes, which are then compacted into firn and subsequently locked into the ice sheet. However, the time resolution for this is not fine enough for such volcanic measurements, nor is the volume of gas large enough to make an accurate estimate of the volcanic origin.

Gases trapped in the ice can be measured with special instrumentation and give insight into the prehistoric atmosphere.

Drilling ice cores for ion analysis is not a simple business. The logistics are staggering – getting both the field equipment and properly trained personnel to the middle of the ice sheet takes a sophisticated transportation network and cannot follow a strict schedule because Mother Nature plays by her own rules.

A complete medical checkup is necessary from top to bottom, as medical facilities can be rudimentary at best. This includes bloodwork, heart monitoring, full dental x-rays, and more (depending on your age and gender). It can take several days to evacuate a hurt or sick person to a proper hospital and therefore being in good health with an up-to-date medical record is part of being prepared for this type of remote work.

Equipment must be shipped to the site weeks or months in advance, often left at the mercy of the elements before being assembled again. Hopefully, everything works. If not, you must be very resourceful because there are no regular shipments and replacement parts are difficult to come by.

Boarding passes given to polar support staff leaving from Christchurch, New Zealand to McMurdo Station (USA) in Antarctica.

Ice cores obtained from polar areas and other remote places have been used for decades to analyze and reconstruct past events. Many considerations must be made regarding where to drill, how deep to go, and so on. The geographic location is of critical importance for several reasons including avoiding contamination from anthropogenic emissions, but also for its annual snowfall accumulation rate, proximity to volcanoes and even to other living beings (like penguin colonies, in the Antarctic).

Remote drill site based outside and upwind of Summit Camp, Greenland.

A fine resolution record of sulfate from ice cores drilled in Greenland and Antarctica has led to the discovery of previously unknown volcanic events. Ion chromatography with a dual channel system allows the simultaneous measurement of cations and anions from the same sample. When dealing with such critical samples and small volumes, this is a huge benefit for complete record keeping purposes. With the addition of automatic sample preparation like Metrohm Inline Ultrafiltration or Inline Dilution, human error is eliminated with a robust, time-saving analysis method.

Over the past two decades, the time resolution for data from ice core analysis has increased significantly. Conductivity used to be the measurement of choice to determine large volcanic events in ice cores, as it is difficult to see (unaided) the deposits of tephra from many eruptions, contrary to what you may think. The conductivity of sulfuric acid is higher than that of water, but conductivity is a sum parameter and does not disclose exactly what components are in the sample.

Tephra layers deposited by a volcanic eruption in Iceland.

Even when IC began to build traction in this space, the sample sizes did not allow researchers to determine monthly variations, but yearly approximations. This meant that any smaller sulfate peaks could have been overlooked. Researchers have tried to overcome this by matching records from ice cores around the globe to estimate the size, origin, and climatic impact of past volcanoes. Unfortunately, when the drill site is located close to active volcanism (as is the case with Greenland, downwind from Iceland), even smaller eruptions can seem to have an oversized effect.

Drilling into the ice always requires keeping track of the top and bottom ends of each meter!

The enhanced time resolution now possible with more sophisticated sample preparation (i.e. continuous flow setups for sample melting without contamination) for small volume IC injection allows for more accurate dating of volcanic eruptions without other apparent historical records.

Selected data from a drilled ice core, measured by IC. Trace analysis is necessary due to the low concentrations of ionic species deposited in remote locations. Annual layer counting was possible here, as shown with the yearly variations in several measured analytes. Grey bars represent the summer season.

Depending on the annual snowfall at the drill site and the depth of the core drilled, it can be possible to determine which month in a given year the deposition of sulfate from a volcanic eruption occurred.

This information, combined with other data (e.g., deposition length) helps pinpoint the circulation of the eruption plume and estimate the global impact. Aside from this, other data can be gained by measuring the isotopic composition of the deposited sulfate to determine the height of the eruption cloud (a more accurate method to confirm stratospheric eruptions), but that is beyond the scope of this article.

Storing hundreds of meters of ice cores during a summer research campaign in Antarctica.
Summers at Dome Concordia are not balmy, as shown in the temperature data (-54.3 °C wind chill!).

Using ion chromatography, it is possible even in the field to accurately determine the depth where specific volcanic events of interest lie in the ice. Then several ice cores can be drilled in the same location to procure a larger volume of ice to perform more detailed analyses.

My ice core research laboratory in Antarctica. Left: Metrohm IC working around the clock in the warm lab. Right: the ice core sample processing area in the cold lab (kept at -20 °C).

To solve this particular mystery, it was the combination of matching the same sulfate peak measured via IC in ice cores from both polar regions along with confirming the stratospheric nature of the eruption that led to the discovery of a previously unrecorded volcanic event in the tropics around the year 1809 C.E.

Transporting insulated ice cores back home for further research takes the cooperation of scientists, camp support staff, and the government. If flying, the entire flight must be kept cold to ensure the integrity of the ice. Any unlucky person catching a ride on a cold-deck flight must bundle up!

Cold period was extended by a second volcanic eruption

In fact, the stratospheric Tambora eruption in 1815 was already preceded by another huge climate-impacting event in the tropics just a few years before. This combination led to one of the coldest periods in the past 500 years. The data obtained by IC measurements of ice cores was instrumental in this discovery, and many more in the past few years.

Leaving the Antarctic continent can happen in a number of ways: by boat, military aircraft, or a plane. I was lucky enough to catch a first class ride on a government plane, with the added bonus of having a very interesting flight plan on screen.

High impact data

Other new volcanic eruptions have been discovered in the ice core record as the analytical technology improves. Their eruption dates can also be more accurately determined, helping to explain which of them had a climatic impact or not. This information helps to improve the accuracy of climate models, as the high altitude sulfate aerosols resulting from large eruptions reflect the sun and cause long periods of global cooling. It is for this reason that some groups have proposed a form of geoengineering where controlled amounts of sulfur gases are injected high into the atmosphere to mimic the effects of a stratospheric eruption.

In conclusion

I hope that this brief summary of a niche of environmental research with ion chromatography has piqued your interest! Maybe the inspiration of knowing that such roles exist will push other young scientists to pursue a similar career path. Chemistry education does not always have to happen indoors!

Robust ion chromatography solutions

Metrohm has what you need!

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

«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.

Fresh shrimp – made in Switzerland?

Fresh shrimp – made in Switzerland?

Shrimp from Rheinfelden

SwissShrimp AG, based in Rheinfelden, Switzerland, is the largest producer of shrimp in Europe. Michael Siragusa, a chemist and Technical Operations Manager, introduced us to the company during a visit and explained why a fully automatic IC system from Metrohm plays the main role in monitoring water quality in the breeding pools.

SwissShrimp, which are locally grown without antibiotics, shown in the packaging available in some grocery stores in Switzerland.

An ideal location

Shrimp farms are usually associated with tropical fields, especially in Southeast Asia. Often, one also thinks of the dubious reputation these farms have due to their large ecological footprint. The SwissShrimp project in Rheinfelden shows that shrimp can also be produced on a large scale in Switzerland without exhausting nature and entirely without the use of antibiotics. According to Plant Manager Michael Siragusa, many individual factors are decisive for the success of the project. One of the most important of these is that SwissShrimp AG, at its Rheinfelden site, can cover a large part of the enormous power requirements for heating the breeding pools, at very favorable conditions, using heat from the nearby Swiss Salinen AG (Swiss Salt Works).

Inconspicuous: SwissShrimp produces its shrimp in this hall located in the middle of a green meadow.
The Swiss saltworks evaporate brine for salt production. Its waste heat supplies a large part of the energy for heating SwissShrimpʹs breeding pools.

Large technical effort

There is a tropical climate in the companyʹs large, inconspicuous hall: Shrimp of the species Litopenaeus vannamei (Pacific white shrimp) are raised in a total of 16 pools, each measuring 40 x 5 x 0.50 meters, on two floors. At a constant water temperature of 28 degrees Celsius, these pools each have up to 200,000 shrimp, with the animals in one pool all at roughly the same stage of development. SwissShrimp sources the larvae from special, certified breeders in Europe or the USA. It takes around six months before shrimp of up to 14 cm in length have developed from tiny larvae, which are barely two millimeters in size.

Densely stocked: Each of the 16 pools holds up to 200,000 shrimp.

Until the shrimp grow to full size, they are fed automatically with a special, organic dry feed. The grain size and composition of this feed varies depending on the stage of development. The dense stocking of the pools means that cleaning the water requires a great deal of effort. In a total of eight water circuits, the entire volume in the breeding pools is cleaned mechanically, biologically, and chemically 20 times a day using the latest filter technology; three percent of this volume is replaced daily. 

Waste recycling: The feed for the shrimp is mainly made from fish waste. The composition and grain size is precisely matched to the different development stages of the shrimp.

An IC system from Metrohm controls the water quality

«Water treatment is essential for us. We purify the water in our pools about 20 times per day.

In order to allow the shrimp to grow and keep the biological equilibrium of the plant, we have to keep a close eye on the toxic parameters… ammonium, nitrite, and nitrate.

If we performed this monitoring by an alternative method…, the 10 to 20 determinations would take the whole day, every day

Michael Siragusa

Technical Operations Manager, SwissShrimp AG

When it comes to monitoring the water quality in the breeding pools, a fully automated IC system from Metrohm comes into play: In the SwissShrimp company laboratory, the water of each of the 8 water circuits is examined daily for concentrations of toxic pollutants such as nitrite, nitrate, and ammonium, which are introduced into the water by the excretions of the shrimp.

Download our free Application Notes below to learn more about ion chromatography and the analysis of nitrite, nitrate, and phosphate in seawater from a shrimp farm.

In the company laboratory: The water quality is monitored fully automatically with a 930 Compact IC Flex, 940 Professional IC Vario, and 858 Professional Sample Processor. In order for the shrimp to thrive, it is important to detect any deteriorations in water quality at an early stage so that corrective measures can be initiated in good time. Altogether, around 2000 multi-parameter analyses are carried out annually at this measuring station.

On the other hand, saltwater parameters important for the shrimp to thrive are measured. These include chloride, sodium, magnesium, calcium, and potassium. Given the sheer number of parameters that need to be monitored, the advantage of ion chromatography comes into effect: IC is a multi-parameter method, i.e. several different parameters can be determined with a single measurement. In addition, not only does the analysis run automatically, but sample preparation with the inline ultrafiltration and dilution steps is also integrated into this process. In fact, SwissShrimp does not need a full laboratory assistant position thanks to Metrohmʹs automated analysis system.

Learn more here about Metrohm Inline Sample Preparation (MISP) for difficult sample matrices:

In the profit zone starting this year

The operation in Rheinfelden did not begin until 2018, and SwissShrimp is not yet operating profitably. However, production is expected to increase to 60 tons annually by the end of 2021. This is when the project, costing 25 million francs, would generate a profit for the first time. The company is currently investing in marketing in order to achieve this goal, because it is not yet well known that the best shrimp to be purchased in Switzerland come from Rheinfelden.

No frozen goods

Shrimp from Rheinfelden are a delicacy and are marketed as such, but only in Switzerland so far. Around 70 to 80 kilograms of shrimp currently leave the company every day, delivered only on order. The fresh shrimp are delivered directly to end customers and select markets of the two major Swiss retailers, Migros and Coop, via Priority Mail within 24 hours in special transport boxes specially developed for SwissShrimp with integrated Peltier cooling elements. On-site collection by the customer after ordering is also possible.

Fresh shrimp, grown daily on the northern border of Switzerland.

To learn more about the production of shrimp in Rheinfelden, visit the SwissShrimp website.

Further free Application Notes for the analysis of several ions in seawater via ion chromatography can be found on the Metrohm website.

Visit our website

to learn more about how automated IC analysis can help save valuable time in your lab

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