Dr. Janusz Pawliszyn

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Revolutionary tools take lab to the field

"Life is a laboratory. Experiment," says the quote beneath Janusz Pawliszyn’s email signature.

Dr. Janusz Pawliszyn in his laboratory

The analytical chemist, who holds the Canada Research Chair and NSERC Industrial Chair in New Analytical Methods and Technologies, has taken his own advice to heart, revolutionizing chemical testing.

Adding to a long list of honours is his most recent: the $100,000 EnCana Principal Award from the Ernest C. Manning Awards Foundation. Presented for Pawliszyn’s invention of solid-phase microextraction (SPME), the prize recognizes Canadian innovators who have made a significant impact in the world outside the lab.

SPME is widely used in laboratories, but the most exciting application for the technology is on-site, particularly with living organisms.

Rather than collecting samples of air, water, soil, or blood and transporting them to the lab for analysis — often using hazardous organic solvents — SPME technology allows analysis on site where samples are collected with portable instrumentation. The result is a paradigm shift in sample preparation, producing faster and more reliable data, says Pawliszyn.

To sample environmental toxins or food contaminants, or perform in-vein blood analysis, 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. Analysis of the sample can be conducted on site or back in the lab to determine what kind and how much of a chemical is present.

The technology has already been put to use by the U.S. military. Investigators used SPME to test for toxins in the air at the World Trade Centre after 9-11, and it is currently employed to sample the chemical components of explosive devices. The unique chemical signature of a bomb can be used to trace the origin of the explosion.

Pawliszyn credits Waterloo — “a dynamic university, the MIT of Canada” — for facilitating the development and promotion of new technology.

In addition to a supportive environment, to be a successful inventor, he explains, requires “an understanding of the depth of the subject and a vision of where analytical chemistry is going. You need to try different things and commit time to do it.”

In 2010, Pawliszyn joined the ranks as University Professor. The position of University Professor — normally limited to 14 active faculty members — exists to recognize exceptional scholarly achievement and international pre-eminence in a particular field or fields of knowledge. New recipients of the honour are chosen by the University Tenure and Promotion Committee, based on nominations, and are recognized at Convocation each year.