New Possibilities

Sometimes all it takes to open up new possibilities for scientists and engineers is the right tool. One example of this principle in action: An endowment that provides discretionary funding enabled Caltech to buy a key piece of equipment that now helps to advance investigations into the history and future of the climate.

In 2014, the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair helped fund a state-of-the-art liquid chromatography mass spectrometer for the Environmental Analysis Center at Caltech.

Researchers use the spectrometer to identify chemicals in complex mixtures. Investigators can work faster with the new instrument, performing tasks in as little as 10 percent of the time they used to take. The new tool is more precise—adding three decimal places of accuracy—and more sensitive, detecting substances at smaller volumes.

As a result, the Environmental Analysis Center now provides data more quickly and reliably to more scientists and engineers across campus.

What kind of research uses this tool? Here are just a few answers:

Studying the origin of polluting aerosols in the atmosphere

One collaboration brings together two researchers who aim to understand how polluting aerosols form in the atmosphere. The upgraded mass spectrometer helps John Seinfeld, Caltech’s Louis E. Nohl Professor and professor of chemical engineering, and Richard Flagan, Irma and Ross McCollum-William H. Corcoran Professor of Chemical Engineering and Environmental Science and Engineering, to identify intermediate compounds along the path from gas to aerosol and figure out the effects of varying conditions.

Understanding the many forms of sulfur

The new instrument is also helping researchers learn how sulfur moves through the environment and living things. In Caltech’s Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences, professors of geobiology Victoria Orphan and Alex Sessions and professor of geochemistry and global environmental science Jess Adkins use the upgraded mass spectrometer to find out what form sulfur has taken in historical and current samples.

Examining the role of microbes

Dianne Newman, professor of biology and geobiology in Caltech’s divisions of Biology and Biological Engineering and of Geological and Planetary Sciences, is working with Alex Sessions to study the role of microbes in shaping the chemistry of our environment. With the new mass spectrometer, they are able to examine whether and how a particular bacterium produces a compound that is basic to crude oil.

Giving Priorities