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Developments in analytical techniques in the academic field

Developments in analytical techniques in the academic field

New century... old challenges

In 1897, J.J. Thomson presented the world’s first particle accelerator, along with what would become, years later, the initial mass detector. Following develop­ments in the 1940s, the equipment developed at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge in 1912 was destined to, revolutionise analytical chemistry. For his discovery of ‘negatively charged corpuscles’, which we now call the ­electron, Thomson was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1906. Today, ­more than 100 years after this fabulous discovery, we rely on a wide variety of detection techniques for the ratio of the charge to the mass, which are applicable to various areas from the oil industry to medicine.

Unfortunately, the development of such analytical techniques and advanced equipment was not accompanied by the necessary dissemination of knowledge arising from such developments throughout the twentieth century. I do not refer here to the written materials, which exist in abundance; I am referring to the practical education and training of professionals.

Professionals with a university degree, ­regardless of their training in undergraduate or graduate courses, are in most cases mere readers and interpreters of graphics and data, which are provided by a computer, no matter what analytical technique is being used (GC, HPLC, MS, NMR etc.). The vast majority of users lack a critical view of the whole process involved in obtaining results. Such vision confines itself to a few members of academia and industry. This scenario is justified, in part, by the fact that at some educational institutions students do not have authorisation to handle the equipment, especially when it is very costly, for fear that they may cause damage to the equipment, which usually ends up being operated by trained technicians contracted by the universities and/or research institutes.

Such a scenario favours suppliers of analytical equipment based on low technology, ­because they will be able to sell their low-quality equipment to uncritical customers. For companies that invest in products of high technology the situation is a nightmare, because high-techno­logy development involves years of investment in research and so elevated costs. However, even these companies have no interest in spreading knowledge, hiding behind patents and industrial secrets. High prices have been charged, by the standards of the emerging economies, for training courses of poor quality. These courses teach people primarily how to interpret graphs and data and push buttons. The view taken is that this is what the customer wants – just to be shown how to operate the equipment. Well, I am sure there are many customers who want more than that!

The challenge for companies developing the analytical instrumentation in the twenty-first century is to work together with academia. What is needed is a partnership with universities and research centres, with the aim of training young professionals fulfilled and active in the analytical instrumentation area, knowing not only the basics, but also aware of the factors that differentiate the equipment to be used. As a result these students and future professionals will be able not only to operate the equipment and interpret data – they will also be in a position to contribute and collaborate in the develop­ment. After all, isn’t that what the big software companies have been doing over the years with much success? Why should the hardware be any different?

If we want to get out of the nineteenth century and into the twenty-first, a change of attitude and mentality in both academe and industry is needed. In the future, we hope that these two areas can really work together to project and develop new instruments.

It is time to take on this challenge...

L&M int. 3 / 2015

The articles are publishes in issue L&M int. 3 / 2015.
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