Researchers 3D-Print Components for a Portable Mass Spectrometer

Since the 3D printer can form practically any shape, the researchers designed a quadrupole with hyperbolic rods. This shape is ideal for mass filtering but difficult to make with conventional methods. Many commercial filters employ rounded rods instead, which can reduce performance.

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This work was funded by Empiriko Corporation.


To test their 3D-printed quadrupoles, the team swapped them into a commercial system and found that they could attain higher resolutions than other types of miniature filters. Their quadrupoles, which are about 12 cm long, are one-quarter the density of comparable stainless-steel filters.

His team balanced this trade-off by leveraging additive manufacturing to make miniaturized quadrupoles with the ideal size and shape to maximize precision and sensitivity.

Published: Thursday, January 18, 2024 – 12:00

“Our vision is to make a mass spectrometer where all the key components can be 3D-printed, contributing to a device with much less weight and cost without sacrificing performance. There is still a lot of work to do, but this is a great start,” Velásquez-Garcia adds.

To finish the quadrupole, the researchers used a technique called electroless plating to coat the rods with a thin metal film, which makes them electrically conductive. They cover everything but the rods with a masking chemical and then submerge the quadrupole in a chemical bath heated to a precise temperature and stirring conditions. This deposits a thin metal film on the rods uniformly without damaging the rest of the device or shorting the rods.

In the future, the researchers plan to boost the quadrupole’s performance by making the filters longer. A longer filter can enable more precise measurements since more ions that are supposed to be filtered out will escape as the chemical travels along its length. They also intend to explore different ceramic materials that could better transfer heat.

A quadrupole, a common type of mass filter, is composed of four metallic rods surrounding an axis. Voltages are applied to the rods, which produce an electromagnetic field. Depending on the properties of the electromagnetic field, ions with a specific mass-to-charge ratio will swirl around through the middle of the filter, while other particles escape out the sides. By varying the mix of voltages, one can target ions with different mass-to-charge ratios.

Although fairly simple in design, a typical stainless-steel quadrupole might weigh several kilograms. But miniaturizing a quadrupole is no easy task. Making the filter smaller usually introduces errors during the manufacturing process. Plus, smaller filters collect fewer ions, which makes chemical analysis less sensitive.

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This lightweight, cheap, yet precise quadrupole is one important step in Luis Fernando Velásquez-García’s 20-year quest to produce a 3D-printed, portable mass spectrometer.

For instance, a scientist could bring a portable mass spectrometer to remote areas of the rain forest, using it to rapidly analyze potential pollutants without shipping samples back to a lab. And a lightweight device would be cheaper and easier to send into space, where it could monitor chemicals in Earth’s atmosphere or those of distant planets.

(MIT: Cambridge, MA) — Mass spectrometers, devices that identify chemical substances, are widely used in applications like crime scene analysis, toxicology testing, and geological surveying. But these machines are bulky, expensive, and easy to damage, which limits where they can be effectively deployed.

In addition, further experiments suggest that their 3D-printed quadrupoles could achieve precision that is on par with that of large-scale commercial filters.

Velásquez-García is joined on the paper by lead author Colin Eckhoff, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS); Nicholas Lubinsky, a former MIT postdoc; and Luke Metzler and Randall Pedder of Ardara Technologies. The research is published in Advanced Science.

Size matters

“You can’t make quadrupoles arbitrarily smaller—there is a trade-off,” Velásquez-García says.

At the heart of a mass spectrometer is the mass filter. This component uses electric or magnetic fields to sort charged particles based on their mass-to-charge ratio. In this way, the device can measure the chemical components in a sample to identify an unknown substance.

“Mass spectrometry is one of the most important of all scientific tools, and Velásquez-Garcia and co-workers describe the design, construction, and performance of a quadrupole mass filter that has several advantages over earlier devices,” says Graham Cooks, the Henry Bohn Hass Distinguished Professor of Chemistry in the Aston Laboratories for Mass Spectrometry at Purdue University, who was not involved with this work. “The advantages derive from these facts: It is much smaller and lighter than most commercial counterparts, and it is fabricated monolithically, using additive construction…. It is an open question as to how well the performance will compare with that of quadrupole ion traps, which depend on the same electric fields for mass measurement but which do not have the stringent geometrical requirements of quadrupole mass filters.”

“This is a relatively new technology for printing ceramics that allows you to make very precise 3D objects. And one key advantage of additive manufacturing is that you can aggressively iterate the designs,” Velásquez-García says.

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