A New Zealand-designed benchtop nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer called Spinsolve is making material analysis easier for a variety of industries. According to the machine’s developers (in 2014), it is currently the fastest compact NMR spectrometer in the world. In March 2014, the New Zealand Government awarded the development of the machine and associated research strands a gold award for research excellence.

Spinsolve, a little bigger than the average kitchen food processor, has been developed by Magritek – the Wellington-based scientific instruments company founded by the late Sir Paul Callaghan – along with researchers at Victoria University of Wellington, Massey University and RWTH Aachen University in Germany.

NMR spectroscopy works with the magnetic properties of certain atomic nuclei – those whose nuclei possess angular moment, aka spin. When a sample of material whose constituent atoms have magnetic nuclei is placed in a magnetic field, the nuclei become aligned in a predictable and finite number of orientations, allowing the physical and chemical properties of the atoms and the structure of the molecules in which they are contained to be determined.

Apparently, the portable Spinsolve device does this type of analysis in less time and at a fraction of the cost that it takes to do the analysis on traditional equipment – which is usually big and bulky, has to be housed in a special facility and is expensive to maintain.

One of the developers, Dr Robin Dykstra, a senior lecturer in Victoria’s School of Engineering and Computer Science, said in a press release from Victoria University, “We are seeing the results of the foundation laid by Sir Paul – most of us working on this research completed our PhDs under Paul’s supervision, and we are making a reality of his dream of using science and technology to create a world-class, home-grown industry. Paul would have been exceptionally proud of the research we are doing, and we are proud to be taking his work to the next stage.

“What we are aiming to do is move magnetic resonance out of the lab and the clinic and open up possibilities for it to be used in a whole range of new industries such as oil and gas, geothermal, chemical processing and biotechnology. There is significant international interest in MR because it is non-invasive and rich in information. Our group has a real technology edge in this field.”

The two current versions of the machine, Spinsolve and Spinsolve Carbon, are proving popular among researchers in educational facilities and pharmaceutical companies around the world.

Talking at a recent Pittcon 2014 conference in Chicago, CEO of Magritek, Dr Andrew Coy, said, “[Spinsolve] enables the power of high-resolution NMR spectroscopy to be used in a regular chemistry lab. It uses permanent magnets for deploying the magnet inside the system, so it is not reliant on liquid helium and the cryogens that you would normally find in a high-field NMR spectrometer. This dramatically lowers the cost and the operating requirements of the system … Spinsolve Carbon adds the ability to measure the 13C nucleus. As you know, carbon is the atom that forms the backbone of every organic molecule, and therefore, the ability to measure 13C NMR spectra is a fundamental tool of use to organic chemists everywhere.”

The on-going research around NMR has a number of work strands – the Spinsolve machine is at the commercialisation end while another research strand, led by Dr Petrik Galvosas, a senior research fellow in Victoria’s School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, is investigating how knowledge from testing porous media in NMR spectrometers (Magritek’s technology is already used for testing how porous rocks are) can be used, such as detecting breast cancer.

“Tissue is porous, so in theory, our technology can be used to track the way fluids move through the tissue, providing accurate information about its structure. Our vision is to develop a simple, portable device that would sit on a doctor’s desk and be routinely used for screening, alerting the doctor if there was abnormality in tissue that needed further investigation.

“Current scanning systems carry some risk – we are aiming to develop a machine that is an alternative to X-ray and to MRI systems that use chemicals for improved imaging contrast, which may not be tolerated by all patients.”

Activity idea

Spinsolve is an advance in NMR – first discovered in1946. View the Timeline – Developments in medical imaging to view a history of major developments in this area.

    Published 19 May 2014