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What is the future of analytical chemistry?

As the study of the chemical structure and nature of substances, analytical chemistry plays an important role in the pharmaceutical sciences. But what does the future hold for this burgeoning field?

In this article, we look at the trends in analytical chemistry that are driving ongoing research and poised to have a major impact for years to come.


1) Miniaturisation

Thanks to rapid developments in instrumentation, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) are becoming increasingly diminutive in size making it possible to decrease demands in working space, water, reagents and power, as well as a number of other high-cost variables.

In particular, the rise of mobile laboratories and portable benchtop spectrometric devices has enabled more varied analytical applications of the technology, giving analytical chemists greater scope for out-of-laboratory work. In the past, most spectrometers were cumbersome instruments that were large enough to fill a room. Today, a Raman spectrometer can fit inside a chemist’s pocket and be integrated with smartphones for monitoring.

With greater miniaturisation, analytical chemists will be able to use spectrometric devices in ways that not have been thought possible a decade ago.


2) Automated analysis

In recent years, the automation of analytical instruments (such as autosamplers, databases, data treatment, and control of instruments using microprocessors) has accelerated the advancement of analytical chemistry techniques.

Automation has long been employed to solve a number of industrial and laboratory problems. In the chemical and petroleum industry, these automatic analytical systems are typically based on gas chromatography, a technique used for separating and analysing compounds that can be vapourised without decomposition.

In metallurgical plants, similar systems such as fast sampling tools, pneumatic mail for transporting samples to a laboratory, and atomic emission spectrometers are already in use.

In the laboratory, automatic systems for analysis often include continuous flow (particularly in the agriculture and pharmaceutical industries) or flow injection analysis.

Improvements in software and computational technology have also led to the generation of ever-expanding data sets that need to be sorted, stored and analysed. As such, analytical chemists working with these complex data sets need to be well versed in statistics and chemometrics, as well as being a specialist in sampling, instrumentation, and interpretation.

The use of laboratory robots is also on the rise, with some fears that the advent of robotics may kill this traditionally hands-on discipline. However, the vast amounts of data generated by modern techniques and instrumentation actually represent an opportunity for analytical chemists because their cognitive skills are needed to render the data useful.


3) More cost- and time-effective research

The direct knock-on effect of the developments explored above is a cheaper and faster end-to-end research process.

More advanced separation techniques and the increasing use of computer simulation modelling removes the need for additional experiments, helping to save time and money. Specific method development and optimisation software programmes such as DryLab, for example, can even enable researchers to predict chromatograms using a small number of data points.

As analytical instruments and protocols become more advanced, it will also become possible to perform complex analytical tasks with higher sensitivity and greater accuracy.

Ultra-Performance Liquid Chromatography (UPLC), for example, offers a more accurate analysis than traditional High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) due to its higher throughput and enhanced ability for separation.

For this reason, the use of UPLC and other hyphenated techniques have become increasingly commonplace in certain industries, particularly the pharmaceutical sector.

Currently, multidimensional gas techniques such as GCxGC and LCxLC are widely used in a range of industries, while developments are taking place in column technology and mass spectrometry. Another emerging area is tandem mass spectrometry (MS/MS), a technique in which two or more mass spectrometers are coupled up to better analyse chemical samples.


4) Green analytical chemistry

As is the case across all areas of scientific research, sustainability is becoming a key theme in analytical chemistry.

Green analytical chemistry is an emergent field that focuses on minimising the consumption of dangerous substances, as well as maximising safety both for operators and the environment.

The miniaturisation of equipment and procedures also forms a key part of sustainable analytical chemistry strategies.


The takeaway

Analytical chemistry is certainly going places, and the importance of the discipline cannot be understated.

By making key breakthroughs in remote analysis and analytical control, analytical chemistry enables the development of the various other fields that deploy its tools and equipment. As technology continues to progress exponentially, we can expect to see a spate of new discoveries in the coming years.

For those involved with the discipline, it’s certainly worth staying ahead of the curve.


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