NSF grant makes Eastern Michigan only school in state with DART mass spectrometer

by Ward Mullens, Published July 23, 2010

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YPSILANTI - Ruth Ann Armitage refers to her newest instrument as “a first-generation tricorder.”

Star Trek fans will know that a tricorder is the instrument that Mr. Spock used. Non-geeks should know that a tricorder can analyze almost anything and provide information about its composition.

The “tricorder” Armitage refers to is a state-of-the-art Direct Analysis in Real Time (DART) mass spectrometer and, when it arrives on campus in August, Eastern Michigan University will be the only university in the state to have one.

“There are many other institutions in the state that would love to have one of these,” said Armitage, a chemistry professor at Eastern Michigan.

Eastern Michigan is receiving the mass spectrometer thanks to a $200,000 National Science Foundation grant.

“The idea is that our students will have access to this instrument and that our approach is interdisciplinary and based on practical applications,” Armitage said.

Armitage said the mass spectrometer will help her research in determining the make-up of paint samples from ancient cave drawings. By taking a sample of just rock and then analyzing a sample of rock with color on it, Armitage can narrow what organic substance was used to make the paint.

Several other EMU professors and their students will be using the mass spectrometer in their research as well, Armitage said.  The instrument will provide many opportunities for collaboration across disciplines, particularly because it can give instant results.

Cory Emal, associate professor of chemistry, said the mass spectrometer will aid in his research to help find an effective agent that could help prevent strokes and type-2 diabetes.


“This new piece of equipment will be of enormous immediate value to myself and the seven undergraduate and graduate students in my research group, allowing us to make much more efficient use of our time and funding,” Emal said. “We will be able to track the progress of and identify components of the chemical reactions we perform in a matter of minutes and in a non-destructive fashion; the techniques we currently use are usually measured in hours, not minutes, and typically results in a loss of some of our material. In addition, the DART will allow us to obtain high-resolution mass spectra of our compounds in-house; we currently must contract with external labs for this critical service.”

The mass spectrometer also will be used by John Texter at the Coatings Research Institute and by Gavin Edwards, Harriet Lindsay, Hedeel Evans, Steven Pernecky, and Deborah Heyl-Clegg and Gregg Wilmes, all professors of chemistry.

This type of mass spectrometer is already used by external agencies like the FBI and other forensic labs; the EMU instrument may help forge connections between the university and law enforcement agencies like Homeland Security and the Federal Drug Administration, and expand our ability to work with cultural heritage institutions like the DIA, Armitage said.

Armitage said scheduling the usage of the mass spectrometer may pose the largest challenge.

“This inspires really cool applications,” Armitage said.

Ward Mullens

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