In recent years, the growing use of advanced analytical instruments in the pharmaceutical R&D and the continuous developments particularly in the field of LC/MS technology, have brought forth a significant increase in laboratory gas demands. With cost-cutting and process improvement being the main focus in this competitive global market, many pharmaceutical labs are making the switch from traditional gas supplies to laboratory gas generators.
Pam Barnacle interviews Chris Pugh, Engineering Director at Peak Scientific Instruments, Ltd. about the latest developments in on site gas generation technology and the numerous benefits gas generators can offer for the modern R&D lab.
Q: What are the most common issues Pharmaceutical labs run into with their traditional instrument gas supplies?
A: The rising cost of gas supplies is definitely the number one concern for labs nowadays. Especially when labs are investing in the newest, most sophisticated LCMS equipment they’ll often have to cope with big increases in gas consumption rates.
Weekly or monthly supply contracts for nitrogen gas cylinders and Liquid nitrogen Dewars can therefore become extremely expensive when adding up all the charges for the gas, the tank rental fees, the delivery fees, etcetera.
The inconvenience of continuously having to exchange empty bottles and tanks is another common complaint. It’s a laborious process and can take up a lot of time. During the exchange, you’ll have to interrupt the research you’re doing on your instrument and wait for the new tank or bottle to be put in place, before you can start again.
Furthermore, we often see labs that are already coping with space restrictions and on top of that they have to manage a considerable number of bulky liquid nitrogen tanks within that limited space. Needless to say, that’s not conducive to a practical and safe work environment.
Then there are logistical issues with bottled gas supply chain management; constantly having to stay on top of your stock control and purchasing procedures and when you do need to order more tanks than initially anticipated, will you be able to get them in time?
Health & Safety issues also come into play, particularly with liquid nitrogen Dewars. You can get severe frostbite if you’re not wearing the correct protective gear when handling cryogenic tanks and you always have to consider the risk of leaks and spills as well as the fact that an average Dewar vents about 2.3% of its contents on a daily basis. When a large volume of nitrogen is suddenly released to the atmosphere it can disperse oxygen and cause asphyxiation.
Q: In what way can nitrogen generators offer a solution for these issues?
A: A nitrogen generator enables the lab to simply ‘make’ its own nitrogen on demand. There’s no longer a need to store big bulky cylinders and tanks in the lab anymore; a single compact nitrogen generator can continuously supply your lab’s total demand for nitrogen gas without ever running out of gas.
For most labs a quick cost comparison with their existing gas supply demonstrates that a nitrogen generator can offer them a return on investment in less than a year.
When you consider that cylinders may need to be changed once or even twice a day, this is valuable time that could be better spent more productively. Gas generators are designed for 24/7 operation with minimal operator involvement. Simply plug & play and the generator will automatically supply the volume of nitrogen required for your analytical instrument(s). Switching to an on-site gas generation solution will therefore also result in an increase in laboratory productivity as researchers can carry out their work without interruption.
Another major advantage of gas generators is that they provide a consistent high purity of nitrogen, therewith eliminating any concerns about potential contaminants entering the gas stream and affecting the results of your analysis.
Purity specification of cylinders and tanks can vary depending on the source and hydrocarbon contamination is still quite common. Laboratory gas generators are specifically designed for operation with analytical instruments such as LC/MS and therefore contain high quality filtration technology which consistently removes all contaminants that are known to affect LC/MS operation, leaving clean, dry, phthalate-free nitrogen.
Q: How do nitrogen generators work?
A: 78% of the ambient air we breathe is made up of nitrogen and essentially what a nitrogen generator does is to temporarily filter out the nitrogen molecules from compressed ambient air, and once the flow of gas is used for its intended purpose, the separated nitrogen simply disperses back into the ambient air maintaining the ambient balance.
The nitrogen generator uses either an external oil-free compressed air supply, or its own built-in air compressors to feed a pressurized flow of ambient air through a so called hollow fiber nitrogen separation membrane. The membrane works on the principle of selective permeation of different molecules through the membrane wall. Water vapor and oxygen molecules permeate faster and are vented back to atmosphere, while the larger nitrogen molecules are much slower and travel through the whole length of the membrane, effectively separating them from the other ambient air components. The separated flow of nitrogen is then collected in a small internal receiver tank to allow precise control of gas supply pressure and flow rate for the consuming instrument.
Nitrogen generators for LC/MS will generate the required gas flows on demand only, meaning that they’ll automatically go into stand-by mode when the instrument is not consuming any gas. This ensures minimum running costs and labs will actually be able to significantly reduce their energy consumption rates by switching from liquid tanks to on-site nitrogen generators.
Q: How do the continuous innovations in LC/MS technology affect the development of new laboratory gas generators?
A: The past few years we have seen quite a number of innovations in LC/MS/MS technology that have had a direct impact on instrument gas requirements. In some cases, the volume of nitrogen required has more than doubled, in other cases a higher nitrogen supply pressure is needed, or multiple different gas flows for a single instrument for example.
Peak Scientific quickly realized that the existing gas generator products on the market were no longer able to match the ever increasing gas demands from the newest instruments and as a result new product developments were needed .
As a designer and manufacturer of gas generators, we always need to be on track with the latest developments in the market. For that reason we work closely with instrument manufacturers to ensure that our range of gas generators is up to date and able to meet the wide variety of different gas requirements in the laboratory market.
LC/MS manufacturers are launching new products every year and most of them have come to realize how crucial it is to be able to offer their customers a made-to-measure gas generator solution along with their instrument. Operational cost of new equipment is an important factor to consider at point of purchase and generators play a big part in minimizing those costs.
With the increasingly wide variety of different gas requirements out there, new generator products are often custom designed for specific instruments.
Quite regularly, instrument manufacturers approach Peak Scientific directly to develop a bespoke gas generator for a new instrument or technology that is in the pipeline. As a company we always welcome these challenges to design the most cost-effective and convenient gas supply solution, over and above our clients’ expectations.
But it’s not just the instrument’s requirements that are taken into account when it comes to developing new products. Our customer’s wishes and suggestions are also taken on board and we always consider the changing operational requirements of modern labs, in order to continuously improve our products’ performance and ease of use.
Q: Can you name a few examples of such improvements?
A: Our newest product ranges are much more compact in comparison with previous generator models. Space is money as they say; especially in laboratories. For that reason we made sure our generators do not take up any more space than absolutely necessary. The majority of our nitrogen generators for LC/MS can either be wall-mounted or they can fit under any standard lab-bench.
Another major improvement was the reduction of noise levels on our generator models with built-in air compressors. At less than
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