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Building Expertise in Ion Chromatography

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The use of ion chromatography (IC) is increasing in a range of application areas, particularly for challenging analytes where other techniques are not suitable. Understanding the chemistry behind IC and its systems can help users to get the most from their instrument and achieve the best results.  

Thermo Fisher Scientific recently launched the IC Education Hub, an easily accessible online source of content to help support IC users to build up their knowledge and expertise of the technique, as well as find tips and tricks and troubleshooting advice.

In this interview, Gemma Ellison, marketing manager for ion chromatography, sample preparation and discrete analyzers, Thermo Fisher Scientific, tells us more about the hub, the range of content that it offers, and the benefits it provides IC users, whether they are new to the technique or have several years of experience.

Anna MacDonald (AM): Why is interest in IC growing?

Gemma Ellison (GE): IC has been around for over 45 years now, but historically maybe only used for the standard applications, anion, cations and carbohydrates. However as new analytical challenges emerge and compounds of concern become harder to analyze, we are seeing increased interest in using IC in a lot of new application areas.

The other area we see growing is ion chromatography-mass spectrometry (IC-MS). IC can be coupled to any mass spectrometer from a single quadrupole up to high resolution accurate mass spectrometers. This opens up a whole other world of possibilities, one such way is the use in metabolomics, where IC separations can fill the gaps of highly polar and ionic metabolites, which hydrophilic interaction chromatography (HILIC) and liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) cannot reach with the same accuracy. By coupling to mass spectrometers, the information, resolution and sensitivity gained from a sample is vastly increased. We have also seen an increase in other hyphenated techniques with IC, such as ion chromatography-inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (IC-ICP-MS) for speciation of metals and combustion IC, which can analyze liquid and solid samples, including difficult samples such as petroleum and plastics.

AM: What sets the technique apart from liquid chromatography (LC) and gas chromatography (GC)?

GE: IC is still a liquid chromatography technique, but separation occurs due to size and charge of ions. IC is different in many ways, the use of acids and bases as mobile phases (eluents) for a start, which means the whole systems, including the tubing, are made from plastic (PEEK) to avoid corrosion. Ion exchange columns can be more specific, which is why there are lots to choose from; they are sometimes designed for specific applications.

IC also uses electrolytic devices you won’t find in other techniques, such as the suppressor. This is needed to reduce the background from the ionic eluents, otherwise there would be no peaks, but also increases sensitivity and removes counterions from the sample, which would end up in a big mess in the front of your chromatogram. Another device commonly used is electrolytic eluent generation, which is where the system makes the eluents online and enables you to run gradients on an isocratic pump.

IC also uses different detectors, conductivity for most applications but also amperometric detection for carbohydrates and amino acids.

AM: Why was there a need to create an education hub focused on IC?

GE: More often than not, labs have a dedicated IC user and they become the go-to person for all queries regarding IC. But where does that person go to for help and how can they build up that expertise? We have always offered training and support through our IC support specialists, but we wanted somewhere on the web that customers could access easily, whenever they needed to, to look for answers to questions they may have. Once the basics of the technique are understood, there are always more learning opportunities to pick up tips and tricks to maximize the use of the system or maybe a troubleshooting issue arises. If this is something you haven’t experienced before then the hub is a great place to start to look for advice. Perhaps you are looking at a new application area or thinking about adding a mass spectrometer, how can you learn about that?

As a company, we brought the first commercially available IC to the market, so we have over 45 years of knowledge and expertise to share. Of course, our IC specialists will still be available to support customers, but having this extra online resource enables our IC users to learn more at their own pace and convenience.

AM: Can you tell us about the range of content that the IC education hub offers?

GE: The IC education hub has a range of content to suit different learning styles. We have recorded tutorials, which are like an online course for learning about the fundamentals of IC and the chemistry involved.

We have a library of on-demand webinars all based on educational topics, such as high-pressure IC, sample preparation, troubleshooting, columns and method development.

If you are a visual learner, we have bitesize videos available, including a number of “how to” videos which cover consumable installation and preventative maintenance topics. We also have chat videos with our experts giving their proven tips.

You will also find accompanying white papers and technical notes for real detail on topics. The hub is broken up into familiar IC categories such as suppression, columns, troubleshooting, carbohydrates etc. so you will find a range of content on each topic. 

If you can’t find what you are looking for, you can request a topic with a simple form and we can work on content to fill the gaps.

AM: What are the main benefits to users of increasing their understanding of IC chemistry?

GE: By understanding the chemistry and how something really works, then you can truly understand how to operate and look after an instrument and achieve the best results. Productivity can increase because the system is maintained well, uptime is maximized and any potential issues can be spotted early. You need to get to know your system, almost like a pet, what it likes, what it doesn’t like and how to remedy it. In the long run, it will give you better results and save you money. Plus, this knowledge is great for career development, IC is still a fairly niche technique and labs will always desire this kind of expertise.

AM: Do you have plans to incorporate any other features in the future?

GE: Yes, there are a number of plans we are working on. Firstly, to have more language choice available, so we can connect with more customers.

We recently ran some “Ask the Expert” webinar sessions in English and German language, where customers sent in their questions to our IC specialists and we were blown away with the response. We will be planning more live sessions and more recordings using this customer feedback.

We are also working on a subscription email, so that subscribers will be notified when something new is added to the hub, which we plan to do regularly.

As this is a site for our customers, we value all the feedback on what we should include.

You can access the ion chromatography education hub here and you only need to register once to access all of the content. Bookmark the site and then access it as and when you need to. Hit subscribe to be informed of any updates.


Gemma Ellison was speaking to Anna MacDonald, Science Writer for Technology Networks.