Chemistry and Biochemistry

Playing With Scientific Puzzle Pieces

Posted: Feb 08, 2011

Have you ever considered playing with puzzles as part of a scientific researcher’s job description? While they may not be your typical jigsaw brain teasers, it turns out that piecing puzzles together is a normal activity for scientists.

Liquid chromatographers regularly find occasion to apply their puzzle-solving skills as they work to identify the chemicals in a given substance by forcing samples through a capillary tube via liquid pressure. It requires a lot of time, patience, and precision to choose and piece together the right filling in these tiny tubes so as to create channels that separate the chemicals involved while still allowing the substance to flow through.

During his 34 years with the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Milton Lee has involved several graduate students in his efforts to create a more effective alternative for liquid chromatographers. Their work has resulted in a BYU-patented capillary filling.

This filling is like a porous sponge dotted with tiny holes that separate compounds according to their size. Because this sponge-like substance can function on its own, independent of other puzzle pieces, researchers may now cut down on preparation time.

Not only can these capillaries be prepared more quickly, but they also function better. Previous fillings were made of a material that had a tendency to interfere with the proteins being passed through them. Working with these materials was especially difficult for Lee, who centers his research mostly on analyzing proteins. His new product avoids this problem as it is biocompatible, meaning it does not interfere with the proteins being passed through it.

Improving the quality of chromatographic equipment has affected more than just Lee’s own research. In fact, the science of identifying chemical substances by chromatography is a multi-billion dollar industry that finds application in a variety of fields.

“If you take a sample of Grandma’s potion that cures everything, there’s more than just one thing in there,” said Lee jokingly, as an example of the many situations in which liquid chromatography may be applied. He also offered a list of serious professions that employ this science.

Environmental analysts study the elements present in air and water, assuring that these natural resources are safe to breathe or ingest. Clinical laboratories study the blood samples of patients, identifying substances that may be causing illness. Even detectives find a useful application of chromatography as they gather samples from crime scenes or detect chemicals from a pile of ash to determine how a fire was started.

By Natalie Wilson, College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences