Atomic Chemistry: From Green Research Labs and Climate Science to Supply Chains

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Image courtesy Picarro

Advances in technology and the application of atomic chemistry are adding up to a leap forward in the environmental sciences and engineering, as well as the way natural resources are being consumed and used throughout the supply chains of a growing range of industry and commerce.

Once practically affordable only for the world’s leading and largest research institutions, sophisticated chemical ‘analyzers’ the size of a common home workbench are able to identify and very precisely measure chemical isotopes at the atomic scale on-the-fly, and they are now being used by a wide and growing range of commercial and non-profit enterprises around the world– from food and agriculture industry players and environmental organizations to oil & gas companies and water and power utilities.

Their use is advancing understanding of the origin and complex cycling of fundamental chemical elements on earth, as well as enabling organizations to verify and authenticate the origin and source of almost any substance, material or product that contains carbon, hydrogen and oxygen– the building blocks of life on earth, as well as track them as they make their way from source to market and end use.

Picarro’s Stable Isotope, Cavity Ring Spectrometer Technology

From its home base in Santa Clara, California, Picarro is at the leading edge of this ‘step change’ in atomic and isotope chemistry. Backed by venture capital, the start-up designs, develops and manufactures portable cavity ring spectrometers that from almost miniscule samples can identify and measure the ratios of different chemical elements and their stable isotopic forms: C-12 and C-13 for carbon, hydrogen and deuterium, N-14 and N-15 for nitrogen and O-16, O-17 and O-18 for oxygen. Even more impressively, they can do this on-the-fly, even from a moving vehicle.

Akin to fingerprints, these atomic-level, stable isotopic chemical “signatures” can be used to pinpoint the geographic origin and source of almost any substance that contains carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and/or oxygen– from air, apples, bananas, cocoa, corn, trees or fish to water, oil and natural gas, Picarro director of business development Iain Green told Clean Technica.

Originally requiring some rather bulky equipment and prohibitively expensive for most organizations, Picarro’s cavity ring spectrometers are the size of a common home workbench, and they can process samples for around $1 each, Green said.

Once used almost exclusively in the world’s leading and largest scientific research labs, their significantly reduced size and cost is leading a growing number of industrial and commercial organizations to purchase and put them to use in a growing variety of applications.

An Expanding Range of Applicaitons

Understanding and learning how to use chemical isotope analysis and its cavity ring spectrometry technology is part and parcel of Picarro’s business development efforts. The company is engaged in an increasingly diverse range of projects, from verifying the location of grapes grown in California vineyards and crops grown from GMO seeds in Canada to determining the origin of West African cocoa, timber from Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil properties and the source, location and chemical composition of leaks in PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric) natural gas transmission lines.

Picarro’s cavity ring spectrometers were originally, and still are, employed in addressing some of the world’s most vexing environmental issues, including those to do with atmospheric, ocean and climate science, hydrology and water resource management, and understanding the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen cycles. That range of applications is now expanding from the physical to the natural sciences, and from basic academic research to helping solve real-world problems in the industrial and commercial spheres, Green related.

For instance, Picarro’s working with GMO seed companies in Canada to identify and geographically track the location, and hence use, of their products on farms across Canada’s farm belt. California wine growers are employing Picarro’s stable isotope analyzers to authenticate exactly where the grapes used to make specific bottles of wine were grown.

Isotope Analysis, Fair Trade & Human Rights

They’re also increasingly being used to tackle issues related to Fair Trade and human rights, such as verifying the origin and tracking smuggled shipments of coacoa from the Ivory Coast across the border into Ghana and beyond, into the supply chains of the world’s major producers and distributors of chocolate. Indonesian and palm oil plantation owners have contacted Picarro regarding using its technology to verify and track the origin of timber.

As Green explained, “Any plant anywhere in the world is photosynthesizing…[and taking up] different isotopic ratios” of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. In addition to the most common form of the hydrogen atom, a slightly heavier form, deuterium, is also found on Earth.

“The relative percentage of these two isotopes differs in different parts of the world.” The same is true for the most common, naturally occurring carbon isotope, C-12, and its less common isotope, C-13. Both hydrogen and carbon exist in rarer, radioactive forms, tritium and C-14, respectively, the former produced in nuclear power plants and the latter used in radioactive dating of samples that contain organic material.

The economic significance and implications associated with verifying the origin and source of ingredients and materials, and their environmental impact, is only going to increase in coming years, Green and Picarro believe. And recently living, or live, organic material isn’t the only class of substances Picarro’s technology is being used to analyze.

Economic Implications

PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric) has outfitted one of its Toyota Prius field vehicles with a mobile version of Picarro’s cavity ring spectrometer workbench. Rather than having employees walk miles and miles of natural gas transmission lines with a wand-like device to sniff out and verify natural gas leaks, PG&E staff can now drive along these transmission lines and do so at a fraction of the cost.

Stable chemical isotope analysis is also playing a critical role in establishing the source, origin, resulting responsibility, and liability for oil and gas leaks. One university researcher is using it to track the ingestion and spread of oil from BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig blowout through the marine food web, Green recounted.

One actively pursued application in the European Union (EU) is using isotope analyzers to detect the use of illegal herbicides and pesticides in agriculture. Illegal herbicides and pesticides manufactured in China are being smuggled into the EU via Baltic Sea area ports.

“This raises questions as to how to determine whether a farmer is using an approved pesticide,” Green explained. Using Picarro’s technology “can tell you whether a synthetic pesticide has been made in Asia or Europe, for example.”

Along a related vein is the use of chemical isotope analysis in the fast growing renewable resource chemical industry. Whether it’s developing chemicals for agriculture, food, industry or medicine, companies involved in these fields are increasingly turning to natural, renewable sources to develop new products that are environmentally benign and whose use is more sustainable from economic, social and environmental perspectives, Green continued.

Isotope Analysis and Renewable Resource Chemicals and Materials

Coca-Cola, for example, is using Picarro’s cavity ring technology to ensure the integrity of the renewable resource plastic it’s helping develop and using in its bottles. “We sell the analyzers and the companies carry out their own analyses,” Green added. “It pays for itself in a few thousand samples; literally about $1 a sample,” and that includes power costs.

What does Picarro see out on the horizon in terms of the application of isotope analysis and the use of its cavity ring technology? “In time, more and more people are going to have to look beyond food labels,” Green said. “We suspect legislation will go beyond current requirements, which require more bar coding, to include more labeling.

“We expect to see more interest from the food, agriculture and natural resource industries, as well as the renewable resource industry, which has been growing at double digit rates for the past ten years. And they don’t have a reliable test for their supply chain integrity.”

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