And they often need access to special equipment and programming expertise. Bruce's FT-ICR is made entirely of hand-machined parts (except for vacuum components) and controlled with home-written software. “We have our own machine shop in the lab to make small parts,” he says. But for “major big pieces,” Bruce farms the work out.
Alan Marshall at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at Florida State University runs an FT-ICR user facility that pushes the edge of mass spec development. It is one of two labs in the US that soon will have a 21T FT-ICR online (the other is at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory). The “Mag-Lab's” staff includes six Ph.D.s, 20 postdocs and graduate students, a full-time technician, and a machinist, says Marshall, who collectively nudge, tune, and optimize their equipment to squeeze out every drop of performance.
Though the Ph.D.s direct much of the lab's developmental work and original research, it was the machinist, Marshall says, who was a key hire. Armed with a state-of-the-art machine shop containing automated milling machines and electric discharge machining, “He's good enough that we tell him what we want and he'll say: ‘Well, I could build it that way, but it would be better if I did it this way.’ He contributes significantly himself.”
That's important, because mass specs, by their very nature, impose some particular engineering requirements. For instance, some components cannot be made of magnetizable materials like stainless steel, and must be made of titanium, which is challenging to weld. Plus there are the high-powered vacuum systems to contend with.
“People come here as much for the personnel as they do for the hardware,” says Marshall.
Indeed, says Senko, it's getting harder and harder to find people sufficiently well versed in mass spec technology that they can take a job at a company like Thermo and be immediately productive. “There's not a lot of people left still doing hardcore development,” he says.
Thanks to researchers like Marshall and Brodbelt, Compton, and Westphall, however, the tradition does live on.