Sample preparation in the IRMS lab

What’s next after developing a new Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer?

Written by Mike Seed, Elementar UK

After the months and years of planning, designing and producing a brand new isotope ratio mass spectrometer, there comes a time when it finally has to go out into the world to do the job that it was developed to do. Like seeing your children finally take their first steps in the world, this is always the most exciting, yet stressful time of the project. To make sure that this crucial step of the development cycle goes smoothly, it is common for us to collaborate with a carefully chosen customer in-order for them to “beta-test” the instrument. In this beta-test phase, we look to evaluate many aspects of the new development such as:

  • Does the instrument do what we intended it to do?
  • Are there any problems from a general user’s perspective?
  • How well does the instrument perform?
  • Are there things that could be further improved to make the system even better?

These are questions that take some time to get useful answers but also answers that can only really come from a user perspective, and so this is why the beta-test phase is so important to the development cycle.

As part of the isoprime visION beta-testing, Elementar UK has collaborated with the Centre for Global Eco-Innovation based at Lancaster University, UK and sponsored the PhD of Dr Rebecca Burns. Our development concept of the isoprime visION stable isotope analyzer is to be as simple to use as possible, and so we wanted someone to take on using the new instrument with no prior experience of having worked with an IRMS system. Rebecca had already graduate with a first class degree from Lancaster University, but had not much laboratory experience. Her enthusiasm and motivation made it clear that she was the perfect candidate for us to work with. Working alongside Dr Peter Wynn and Dave Hughes in the stable isotope facility at Lancaster University Rebecca was introduced to the isoprime visION system installed there and asked to begin evaluating the instrument and its associated control software, IonOS.

Rebecca successfully analysed a broad range of sample types for numerous on-going projects at the Lancaster Environment Centre as well as focussing on her own research. Rebecca joined two field trips to investigate the biogeochemical cycling of carbon on Sólheimajӧkull, an outlet glacier of the Mýrdalsjӧkull ice cap on the South Coast of Iceland. A range of waters, sediments and gas samples, collected in the field, were brought back to Lancaster University and analysed for carbon content and isotopic composition using the isoprime visION to provide important data on carbon sources buried deep beneath the glacier.

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Beta-testing began in May 2013 and since then the instrument has analysed thousands of samples plus numerous validation and calibration samples for training, research and development purposes. Throughout these sample analyses, Rebecca provided feedback to Elementar UK based on the main hallmarks of the instrument: simplicity of operation without compromising analytical accuracy. Research was also undertaken into electricity and gas consumption under conditions of reasonable usage. Under a greening economy and world helium shortages, both of these issues form pressing needs in the field of analytical development. The new technologies, new software and improvements to instrument design have allowed reduction of energy and gas, setting the visION apart from other Mass Spectrometers. Informative status bars and warnings featured in the IonOS software also aid basic user repair, reducing the amount of engineer call outs and therefore cutting transport emissions.

The success of the project has been wide reaching, benefitting both Elementar and Lancaster University. The isoprime visION has been used across a breadth of research from undergraduate dissertations to competitively funded academic research. Performance data has been reported back to Elementar in the form of technical notes and sales publications allowing us to demonstrate to other future customers the power of the instrument for a range of research questions. Rebecca also gave several excellent presentations at various user meetings and internal staff training events to share her experience with the instrument.

Rebecca has now submitted and successfully defended her thesis at the end of 2016 and has since accepted a job offer from the Royal Society in London, UK. Rebecca will be working to deliver their scientific knowledge exchange and bringing together leading academics, industrial stake holders and policy-makers to address important questions across society. No doubt the experience of her PhD has set her in good stead to be a great success in her new role and we wish her the best of luck in her future career.

Commenting on the success of the beta-test collaboration, Elementar UK General Manager, Paul Wheeler said:

“For Elementar the project has provided external personnel to beta test our new isoprime visION IRMS system. Instrument testing by both experienced and novice users has provided us with a range of different perspectives of the hardware performance and software accessibility that has been fed back into the finalization of the development project. Working with the scientists at Lancaster University allowed us to put our new instrument into the market with confidence that it works and delivers a new perspective to the stable isotope community.”

Dr Peter Wynn, Rebecca’s lead supervisor for the PhD project also said:

“Thanks to the dedication of Elementar UK, Lancaster University and the Centre for Global Eco-Innovation, this project has gone from strength to strength with strong ties made between industry and academia.”


Banner Food Origin Infographic

Infographic: Do we care about the origin of our food?

Elementar specialises in determining the true origin of food by exploring its unique isotope signature. We know there is high demand for such information through our work with industry specialists and academic researchers, but also wished to decipher whether there is similar demand among the general public. We therefore asked: “Do people care about the origin of their food?”

Our survey of more than 800 people found that both the origin of food and the accuracy of food labelling are indeed very important to today’s consumers. We found that an overwhelming 84% of shoppers check where their food comes from either ‘all’, ‘most’ or ‘some’ of the time, with two-thirds (66%) either ‘very’ or ‘quite’ concerned about the origin of their food. More than two-thirds (68%) said that the origin of products is either ‘very’ or ‘quite’ important in influencing their buying decisions.

We have collated our findings in the infographic below. The infographic highlights both the importance of knowing the true origin of a food product and the importance of correct product labelling. It also provides information on how at Elementar we use stable isotope analysis to trace the true origins of a wide range of products, including fruits, vegetables, meats and wines.

Infographic Food Origin and Stable Isotope Analysis

Fighting against food fraud

As the supply chains that deliver food stuffs to our doors grow ever more complex, it becomes more difficult to ensure that we can trust those foods. The most recently revealed cases of food fraud, published in a press release by Europol from April 25th 2017, show the extent of criminal activities in the food sector: 9 800 tonnes, over 26.4 million litres, and 13 million units/items were seized during the operation “OPSON VI”, a joint Europol-INTERPOL operation targeting counterfeit and substandard food and drink in 61 countries.

The operation revealed numerous offenses, for example the production and distribution of fake wine in Italy. In this case, the inferior product was sold as a famous and protected red wine (Protected geographical indication of origin). In Denmark, analyses of virgin olive oils revealed several cases of adulteration, in which the product was blended.

This alarming news explain why consumers are getting more and more worried about food origin and food quality. We at Elementar have more than one solution to monitor food quality: On the one hand, there is the N-protein analysis which determines the protein content of the sample. This value gives an indication on the quality and thus the price of many products. Our “exceed” products lead the technology and the market.

On the other hand, there is stable isotope analysis, which is a technique that can be used to determine the true origin of a food or drink product and to verify its authenticity. This helps to highlight adulteration and any mislabeling of premium or protected foods, and works by evaluating the unique isotope ratio of a foodstuff to determine its origin. Stable isotope analysis with our isoprime visION and isoprime precisION products can therefore play an important role in ensuring consumers are able to trust the food they eat and, essentially, helps to guarantee the public’s safety.


Further readingItalian or Greek? BiovisION ad