Portable Laboratory for On-Field Analysis


A portable laboratory can seriously speed-up the analysis. Let me clarify this sentence.

Everyone has seen movies and series in which actors in lab coats shake a test tube with colored liquid, boldly press the enter button and an entire analysis report magically appears in front of their nose. The reality, however, is different. Take chemical analysis for example. Chemists in the lab must do a number of testing before they can make a viable conclusion. And it is not a press-a-button job.

The analytical process can last for days, weeks or even months, depending on the location of the sampling site, equipment availability and in some cases weather conditions.

This is usually how the chemical analysis goes from start to the end

  1. Obtaining and storing samples
  2. Sample preparation
  3. Sample analysis
  4. Evaluation of results and presenting information

These tasks, plus subtasks, can take a big chunk of time. Let’s take a quick journey through each of these points.

Obtaining and storing samples

The first step requires a scientist to step out of the lab and bring along a sampling kit. Sampling itself is not a difficult job, but it can be dangerous, especially if the goal of the analysis is to examine levels of toxicity of a contaminated area. Sample handling and storage often determine whether the analysis will be a success or fail. The error made at this point jeopardizes the entire analysis.

Sample preparation

Once the samples are collected, whether they are solid or liquid, they often need to be prepared for the analysis. Sample preparation refers to the ways in which a sample is further processed to become a test sample. This is a much smaller subsample with adjusted particle size, but still representative, from which test portions are selected for determination of the substance of interest, also known as the analyte.

Sample analysis

Chemical analysis is a qualitative or quantitative determination which can be done either using classical or instrumental methods. Classical analytical methods are highly accurate and precise. However, they require a sufficient amount of sample and the analyte must make at least 0.1 percent of the total mass of the sample.

Nowadays, analytes can often be found in traces and samples can be as tiny as a drop of liquid or a scrap of a precious fossil. Therefore, instrumental analysis is inevitable.

Evaluation of results and presenting information

This step includes computer work – mathematical manipulations of quantitative results. Afterward, both qualitative and quantitative results are presented in a meaningful manner.

Portable laboratory and instruments

Portable Laboratory Equipment
Photo: Science News Magazine / Los Alamos National Laboratory

A portable device, on the image above, that detects chemical fingerprints of different compounds could someday be used to tell whether it is safe to return to areas exposed to toxic nerve agents.

Then we have this paper in which the authors are describing a portable nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR, based on the use of a 2 kg heavy hand-held permanent magnet, laser-fabricated micro-coils, and a compact spectrometer. Despite the limitations like low resolution and sensitivity, this device is a perfect suit for on-site detection and identifications of dangerous chemicals present in traces.

Lab inside a van

Not just any van. This is a specially designed vehicle with an integrated analytical platform, able to endure the transportation of hazardous materials over long distances.

The lab is configured to detect and confirm chemical and biological agents in air, water, soil, and food supplies, according to The Agilent Mobile Laboratory for Chemical and Biological Defense technical overview. The near-real-time measurements result in more rapid access to information, enabling faster decision making. The van has a pressurized air system, glovebox, biological safety cabinet, and two airlocks.

Featured image: Geologist taking a soil sample in the field / Kansas State University website

Lazar Kulasevic

Founder of Spiderest.

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