Thursday, March 27, 2014

Robotic Arm Probes Chemistry of 3-D Objects by Mass Spectrometry

Proof-of-concept study could soon allow analysis of early earth chemistry on meteorites and other rocks.
When life on Earth was first getting started, simple molecules bonded together into the precursors of modern genetic material. A catalyst would have been needed, but enzymes had not yet evolved. One theory is that the catalytic minerals on a meteorite’s surface could have jump-started life’s first chemical reactions. But scientists need a way to directly analyze these rough, irregularly shaped surfaces. A new robotic system at Georgia Tech’s Center for Chemical Evolution could soon let scientists better simulate and analyze the chemical reactions of early Earth on the surface of real rocks to further test this theory.
3-D mass spectrometry
In a proof-of-concept study, scientists selected a region for analysis on round or irregularly-shaped objects using a 3-D camera on a robotic arm, which mapped the 3-dimentional coordinates of the sample’s surface. The scientists programmed the robotic arm to poke the sample with an acupuncture needle. The needle collected a small amount of material that the robot deposited in a nearby mass spectrometer, which is a powerful tool for determining a substance’s chemical composition.
“You see the object on a monitor and then you can point and click and take a sample from a particular spot and the robot will go there,” said Facundo Fernandez, a professor in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, whose lab led the study. “We’re using an acupuncture needle that will touch very carefully on the surface of the object and then the robot will turn around and put the material inside of a high resolution mass spectrometer.”

The research was published online February 28 in the journal Analyst, a publication of the Royal Society of Chemistry. The research will be featured on the cover of an upcoming print issue. The work was supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) Major Research Instrumentation Program (MRI) grant and by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA Astrobiology Program, under the NSF Center for Chemical Evolution.

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