Scientists at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory have begun identifying things never identified before with the help of one of the world’s most powerful magnets.
The 25-ton instrument, which includes the magnet as part of an ultra-high resolution mass spectrometer, is allowing them to learn more about the molecular world by increasing the clarity and precision with which they can separate and analyze atoms and molecules.
Where a conventional mass spectrometer might show one compound of interest in a chemical reaction, the new tehcnology has been able to show there are actually four or five molecules involved.
“We are poised to make some amazing discoveries and tackle some critical challenges in biology, energy and the environment,” said Steven Ashby at a recent dedication of the system. He is the director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, which manages the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL) on the PNNL campus,.
Never miss a local story.
The technology is called the 21T, short for 21 Tesla Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance Mass Spectrometer.
Work on design of the system started eight years ago, with manufacture of the magnet alone taking three and a half years before it was shipped from England via the Panama Canal to Richland. The cost for the system was about $17.5 million, paid for by the Department of Energy Office of Science.
The bigger the magnet, the higher the resolution.
EMSL scientist Jared Shaw
The magnet has more than 13 miles of superconducting wire and is kept at about minus 450 degrees with supercooled helium.
“It’s about the coldest thing on Earth,” said David Koppenaal, chief technology officer for EMSL and one of the scientists who first conceived of the 21T to study molecular processes.
It is mostly being used for studies involving biology and the environment, including the atmosphere, soil and aquatics. Because EMSL is a DOE user facility, scientists from all over the world can apply to use the 21T along with EMSL researchers.
EMSL scientist Malik Tfaily is working on understanding how the huge reservoir of carbon in the soil affects climate change and vice versa.
From a pinch of soil, the 21T has the resolution to see 10,000 compounds, some of which may differ by almost unimaginably small nuances, and the mass spectrometry accuracy to identify what type they are.
Researchers have identified metabolites produced by microbes that have never been identified before, she said.
The real power of the technology is to near unequivocally identify what compounds are and the molecular makeup of these compounds.
David Koppenaal, chief technology officer for EMSL
The 21T also is being used to analyze large, intact proteins while preserving their biological function. It can determine the amino acid sequences of large proteins and locate small modifications throughout the sequence.
“The bigger the magnet, the higher the resolution,” said EMSL scientist Jared Shaw, and this is the strongest magnet in the world used for these types of experiments.
In addition to looking at the fate of the carbon beneath our feet, other initial research with the 21T includes understanding how fungi break down rugged plant materials more effectively than anything humans can economically produce.
The question is at the heart of efforts to create new fuels and products from lignocellulose, the tough, dry matter of plants.
Researchers also are looking at how particles of pollution interact with naturally occurring particles in the atmosphere, affecting how sunlight is deflected from Earth or absorbed by the atmosphere.
“We’re discovering new compounds and molecular interactions that we haven’t seen before,” Koppenall said. “The real power of the technology is to near unequivocally identify what compounds are and the molecular makeup of these compounds.”