Success Story

Ions in the Stream: Funnel Makes Detection Up to Ten Times Better

Complex scientific instruments called mass spectrometers measure the amount of ions, tiny portions of molecules, in a sample by pushing the ions through the instrument like a swift-flowing stream. These measurements can determine the presence of certain types of substances, such as the amount of harmful chemicals in drinking water or a specific type of protein in a person’s blood that might indicate cancer. Unfortunately, measurements can be hindered, because a large portion of that free-flowing stream of ions is lost while they move from the ion source into the detector for measurement. Because of these ion losses, some substances cannot be detected at all.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s (PNNL’s) electrodynamic ion funnel significantly improves the measurement and detection capabilities of mass spectrometers by enabling more ions in a substance to reach the detector. By focusing the ions with the funnel, scientists can get detection rates that are, on average, five to ten times better than without the funnel. This means scientists can measure smaller quantities of a substance, and even “see” substances that were previously undetectable. Most importantly, scientists are gaining new insights about the makeup of materials that are critically important in fields such as medicine and environmental science.

Four manufacturers of mass spectrometers currently hold active license agreements with PNNL: Bruker Daltonics, Billerica, Massachusetts, licensed in 2003; Thermo Fisher Scientific, Waltham, Massachusetts, 2009; Agilent Technologies, Inc., Santa Clara, California, 2010; and MassTech, Columbia, Maryland, 2011. All except MassTech are selling products that incorporate the ion funnel, with sales estimated at $85M annually.

The ion funnel was developed through funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science Laboratory Technology Research Program, DOE Office of Biological and Environmental Research, and National Institutes of Health. To demonstrate the technology to interested manufacturers, PNNL staff used a small amount of internal technology maturation funds obtained from the Laboratory’s licensing income.