Lab Canada

Waterloo professor wins award for eco-friendly, portable sampling device

Calgary, AB – Dr Janusz Pawliszyn, a professor of chemistry at the University of Waterloo, is the 2008 winner of the $100,000 EnCana Principal Award from the Ernest C Manning Awards Foundation. The award recognizes Canadian innovators who, like Dr Pawliszyn, have made a significant impact in the world outside the lab. His invention of solid-phase microextraction, or SPME, has transformed chemical testing.

“SPME has revolutionized the way that samples are collected and extracted,” says Bruce Fenwick, executive director of the foundation. “Before the commercial development of SPME, many chemical tests were time-consuming and required the use of hazardous organic solvents. But with SPME, sample collection and extraction is simple, safe and can be done on site.”

Since its commercial launch in 1993, SPME technology has generated over US$20 million for Sigma-Aldrich-Supelco and $1 million in royalty revenues for the University of Waterloo.

Before SPME became available, water and other environmental samples were typically transported from the field to a lab before chemicals of interest could be concentrated, extracted and analyzed. Furthermore, older sampling methods picked up a range of chemicals instead of particular chemicals of interest.

In contrast, using SPME, scientists can collect concentrated amounts of specific chemicals on site. In order to sample pesticides, antibiotics, or even the aroma of a ripe tomato, the tester simply depresses the plunger on a small syringe to project a miniature fibre “dipstick.” The fibre, typically a coated metal wire the width of a hair, selectively concentrates target chemicals from the sample in minutes before being drawn back into the syringe needle for safekeeping. Back in the lab, scientists can determine not only what is in a sample, but also how much of a chemical is present.

Dr Pawliszyn says that, initially, many researchers were puzzled about how a small fibre could possibly collect enough chemicals for meaningful analysis. “When (a technology is) new, it’s sometimes surprising,” he admits. Yet, in a little over a decade since its commercialization, SPME has been widely adopted by environmental testing agencies, forensic scientists, clinical labs, the food industry and the fragrance industry. For example, investigators used SPME to test for toxins in the air at Ground Zero at the World Trade Center after 9-11.

More recently, he has been collaborating on medical research that uses SPME to sample blood with minimal impact on the test subject. “There are no limitations to (its) application,” he says.

He holds the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Industrial Research Chair and Canada Research Chair in New Analytical Methods and Technologies.