The Pittsburgh Conference, or PittCon as it’s affectionately known, is one of the biggest lab equipment trade fairs on the planet. There are hundreds of exhibitors dazzling audiences with their latest shiny new instruments.

Everything is that little bit better, faster, more reliable than the competition in some way or another, and as a self-confessed amateur when it comes to most of this kit, it can be hard to see through the spiel to find out what’s really groundbreaking. But a few little things have caught my eye on my wander around the exhibition hall.

Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) conjures up images of large, expensive equipment confined to the basements of laboratories. But NanoMagnetics Instruments based near Oxford, UK, has made an AFM unit that will sit on the palm of your hand, and sells for the price of an optical microscope. The company is aiming it at users who might have thought AFM was inaccessible to them – either because of price or size of the equipment. The ezAFM can be packed up into a small suitcase and taken out into the field or from lab to lab to be used wherever it’s needed.

Taming GC gas guzzlers

Conserving helium is a major priority as it becomes a progressively more scarce resource. While gas chromatography (GC) probably isn’t one of the biggest consumers of the gas, the shortages can make it difficult to maintain supplies in labs. With that in mind, Thermo Fisher Scientific has developed a new injector module that cuts helium consumption dramatically.

In a normal GC, as the sample is injected into the instrument, a relatively large amount of gas is used to ‘split’ the sample and purge the injection port, while a small amount goes through the column to carry the sample through the machine. In Thermo’s new injector, the splitting and purging is done with nitrogen, and helium is only used as the carrier gas. That means that if, for example, a cylinder of helium would normally last for three months of continuous operation, with the modified injector it will last for three to four years.

Holding the key

Waters’ iKey

Microfluidics systems – from lab-on-a-chip reactors to diagnostic sensors – are increasingly popping up in all sorts of applications. Waters has developed a series of plug and play microfluidic liquid chromatography (LC) cartridges, called iKeys, that plug in to the source of a mass spectrometer (MS). The company claims that the microfluidic platform is more sensitive than other LC-MS systems, requiring smaller samples, but is also easy to use and significantly reduces solvent consumption.

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