8 November 2019

60 Years of Gas Chromatography. A Personal Retrospective

Over the last 60 years gas chromatography has been a key technology for process analytics in the chemicals-, gas- and petro industries.

Chromatography is more than just a technology that helps us control processes better and prevent outages. It is a general attitude towards processes and methods. For me it’s almost like a way of life. You don’t just leave it behind when you call it a day at 5 o’clock. It impacts on other aspects of your life, too. For starters, I was probably the only father whose three-year old daughter could say ‚gas chromatography‘ fluently and without flaws when asked about her daddy’s profession. 

L50: Siemens’ first gaschromotograph in 1959

Working with GC sharpened my analytical sensitivity and broadened my understanding of industrial process automation. It gave me a detective’s eye for looking behind the surface of processes and scrutinizing the causes of failures and the potential solutions. I was just two years old when gas chromatography came into being at Siemens with the launch of the L50. It took another 15 years until I first encountered chromatography in 1974 as part of my apprenticeship in the lab.

There are alternatives to gas chromatography (GC), for example laser spectroscopy. Nonetheless, GC remains a given in process industries and is widely used, most notably in the chemicals, gas and oil industries and in petrochemistry. GC isolates the components of gas- and fluid flows before measuring. Like this up to several hundred components can be detected in a single measurement. Laser spectroscopy, albeit enabling quicker results, is more liable to cross-sensitivities of the individual components. GC has a high long-term stability and repeatability of test results and is backed by 60 years of experience in application and optimization of the technology.

Initially, I only dealt with thin-layer and paper chromatography. Soon these were joined by lab-based gas chromatography. The device I worked with back then was a Beckmann© with an oven lined with fire clay. It was as big as a steamer trunk, but it worked. We were so advanced at the time, we no longer had to cut out and weigh peaks, since we had a planimeter to perform the analysis. Today, there is computer software to carry out analysis of chromatograms in a fully automated way.

Since the Beckmann monstrosity didn’t fit into the fume hood and hydrogen was blown into the room from the TCD (Thermal Conductivity Detector) outlet on the back at a rate of about 100 ml/min., this was unceremoniously ignited, leaving two blue flames to happily burn away. That would be unthinkable today!

In the late 1960s gas chromatography, which had been confined to laboratory environments so far, entered the process industries and started to find rich application in process analysis.  By the time of my apprenticeship in 1974, Siemens was already on the market with its L350 laboratory gas chromatograph and the U100 process gas chromatograph. And when Siemens brought out the P300 and the P101 for the process and the SiCHROMAT© for the lab in 1979, I had moved into formal study and was able to continue indulging in my passion for instrumental analysis.

That’s where I encountered not only the L350 and the L400 I mentioned earlier, but also the Siemens S100 high-pressure liquid chromatograph. I got to know and appreciate the SiCHROMAT thanks to our associate professor in Düsseldorf. What a huge advantage it was to have an oven with a movable mantle rather than a lid! Today, the state-of-the-art MAXUM Edition II employs the double oven concept for parallel analysis of multiple gas and fluid flows and most recently offers a modular oven, which greatly facilitates maintenance and reduces operational costs.

Siemens in Karlsruhe

I wrote my dissertation on gas chromatography, was then recruited by Siemens and began work in Karlsruhe in 1984 in what we’d call technical support‘ today. In 1990, I was involved with the market launch of the PGC (Process Gas Chromatograph) 302.

The next exciting event in my career in gas chromatography was Siemens’ acquisition of Applied Automation in 2001. The story of the acquisition is well known. Applied Automation had been very successful in the network integration of GC with process management systems. By 2002 we were free to launch the system that successfully combined the PGC 302 and the MAXUM I. Enter: MAXUM Edition II. 

This has become the standard and a benchmark for all others in the industry. The following year saw the launch of the first MEMS-GC (Micro Electro-Mechanical Systems Gas Chromatograph), the MicroSAM. Its position was firmly established until last year. Siemens currently is the market leader and the leader in this field of technology. Even though the launch of MAXUM Edition II is now almost 18 years ago, the technology is still rapidly evolving and Siemens is working on optimizations and innovations as you are reading this blog.

The multi detector system supports TCP/IP ethernet-based communication. MAXUM II is compatible wit the detector types FID, TCD and FPD PDD. The chromatograph was specifically designed for rough process environments as encountered in the oil, gas and chemicals industries and can be directly deployed online or close to the processes. All components meet ex-safety guidelines and are ATEX, IECEx and CSA certified. A new feature is the intrinsically safe design, so no sparking in the detector wiring can occur. With the new GCs no costly separate ex-safety enclosures are needed.

Maxum product family

The chief strengths of the technology are its variability, easy handling and reduced costs for investments, spare parts and trainings, its robustness, fewer maintenance interventions and quick simple correction and clearance of failure incidents.

Benefits of MAXUM II GC platform at one glance:

  • Reduction of installation costs due to lower installation requirements 
  • High degree of availability due to perfect Plug&Play principle of the analytic modules
  • High level of standardization and low operating costs result in a high level of economic efficiency 
  • Intelligent electronics, local operation via touch screen and central workstation for user-friendly operation 
  • Powerful software for excellent analysis results 
  • Comprehensive network options for central maintenance and secure data transmission 
  • Global Service and Support organization

Looking at the future prospects of gas chromatography I see a general trend towards simplification. The increasing degree of automation supports this trends with simplified handling, higher network connectivity and global monitoring of processes via the workstation. The coming years will see an emphasis on expanding the modularity of the GC technology, which will facilitate the implementation of future technologies like cloud connectivity, machine learning and close-nit data management systems.

The new ASM (Analyzer System Manager) provides a PC-server-based intelligent management system in line with the standard industry communication protocols. The user interface allows access to all information regarding measurement data, constituents and quality of material flows and control of process and equipment conditions. The ASM is the basis for predictive maintenance concepts, which enable higher performance of GC equipment and reliable detection of outages.

As an expert with more than 40 years of experience I see the potential of the MAXUM II platform is not yet exhausted. I don’t believe the platform needs a replacement. The high safety and precision standards and rough process environments in the industries involved require a high degree of reliability, expertise and experience. With its high degree of modularity the MAXUM II platform is now well-prepared for digital transformation and the implementation of future technologies.

Gas chromatography has become a way of life for me. And I am proud to have played my part for a good deal of its rich 60-year history and of having inspired a 3-year old to pronounce ‚gas chromatography‘ with ease. 

Please feel free to share your comments and ask any question you might have about gas chromatography and its applications.

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