Mass Spectrometers: Care, Service, Maintenance - What to Expect

Because modern mass spectrometers are based on solid-state electronics, they do not suffer from the mechanical and electronic problems of yesterday’s instruments. Solid-state electronics, the “shrinking instrument,” and robust dial-up methods have eliminated yesteryear’s high level of specialization and the obligatory doctorate in spectrometry. MS has reached the point where walk-up operation is common, and the instruments are frequently viewed as “just another detector” for GC and HPLC.

The role of an MS lab manager has similarly changed. When MS skills were concentrated within large core laboratories, MS managers possessed many skills, but their responsibilities were geographically limited. Managing and controlling activities was straightforward. (This goes for other instruments that have been “democratized,” such as nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometry, elemental analysis, and to an extent even HPLC.)

“Today, MS may occur in three different buildings, across ten labs, for biology and chemistry,” Andrew Tyler explains. Management of MS instrumentation has become decentralized, if one specialist/manager exists at all. The burden of caring for instrumentation and guiding end users falls onto group leaders, who by necessity must rely on the vendor’s customer support.

Tyler also sees a generational change based on what he calls the “instant message generation.” We’ve heard this before with regard to complex instrumentation. “But most software from mass spectrometer vendors has not begun to incorporate the sort of thinking that allows users to scan bar codes from samples in one room onto a handheld device, and upload the list to an instrument in another room.” Sample data is most often still typed into a spreadsheet or database.

According to Tom Szarzynski, the top servicerelated issue today is an unintended consequence of instrument sensitivity and stability. “It doesn’t take much to dirty up the source, which is where ionization occurs. The majority of those service calls require only a thorough cleaning and recalibration.” Szarzynski recommends at least two preventive maintenance visits per year, and ongoing routine care for high-throughput laboratories whose spectrometers are working constantly.

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