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Highlights in Chemical Technology

Chemical technology news from across RSC Publishing.

Interview: Having a gas

31 March 2008

Gary Hieftje tells Nina Notman about the fun side of science.

Gary HieftjeGary Hieftje is a distinguished professor at Indiana University and holds the Robert and Marjorie Mann Chair in chemistry. His research interests include fundamental and applied investigations into atomic and molecular absorption, emission, and mass spectrometry and metallomics. Gary is chairman of the Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry editorial board.


What motivated you to become a scientist?
As a child I always loved building things like model planes. I also enjoyed making things explode. As with many chemists, these things came together - I would build a model plane and also build something to make it explode mid-flight.

When I was about 8 years old, I used to play with a chemistry set. But the set had a limitation - a small alcohol lamp that didn't get very hot. It was possible using the lamp to bend soft glass but not to do the real glass blowing I wanted to get involved in. So I talked to my uncle who was a plumber and learnt a lot about plumbing. I then used this knowledge to put in a gas line for a Bunsen burner. I was 10 years old when I did it and it was all unknown to my father. When I showed him this bit of glass that I had blown, he asked me where I had done it. I showed him the gas line in the basement and he just about went crazy!

Do you remember your first experiment?
Making gunpowder was my first real chemical experiment. At first, this was very conventional - a mixture of powdered charcoal, potassium nitrate and sulfur. But my mother complained about the sulfur stink, so I substituted cinnamon for sulfur just out of curiosity. It worked but not quite as well. So I looked in a chemistry book and learnt that potassium perchlorate was a much stronger oxidising agent than potassium nitrate. Potassium perchlorate, charcoal and cinnamon made a wonderful explosion and also smelled pretty good!

What is hot in atomic spectrometry at the moment?
A lot of things are hot, which is a nice term for people who use plasmas and flames. One area is speciation and a subset of speciation that we are calling metallomics - the study of metals in living things ranging from single cells to whole organisms.

Another hot topic is melding atomic and molecular techniques. People are now using mass spectrometric methods that involve inductively coupled plasma to give elemental and atomic information, and other sources such as electrospray ionisation to yield molecular information.

How do you see the future of atomic spectrometry?

"Work hard and have fun. There is an awful lot of fun in science."
I see the future in a very positive light. Some people view atomic spectrometry as a stagnant field because we already have such powerful tools. There are good tools, such as inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS), but there are still a lot of unknowns and areas where vast improvements are possible. For example, it can be shown on paper that detection using ICP-MS could be improved down to the single atom or ion level. These advances are going to be increasingly important for the areas of nano- and bioscience.

Another important future area for atomic spectrometry is the imaging process. Currently, we take bulk solutions or samples and determine their elemental composition but soon we will also need to determine their atomic placement.

What is the most exciting project your group is working on at the moment?
The thing I'm most enthusiastic about right now is a new source we have for ambient MS. This technique involves determining samples as they are, everything from a napkin to something on my hand that I have touched. The sample is placed in front of a specialised source, which desorbs the species from the sample surface and ionises them so they can be analysed by MS.

As a significant role model to young aspiring analytical scientists, what advice can you give on a successful research career?
It's really very easy; work hard and have fun. There is an awful lot of fun in science. I've worked in areas ranging from synthetic organic chemistry to the far reaches of analytical instrument building. I have yet to find an area that isn't exciting once I've learnt enough about it.

What research would you most like to be remembered for?
It isn't the research that I want to be remembered for; it is for the students that leave my group. To me research is just a very nice, convenient by-product of the educational process.

What do you like doing away from work?
I enjoy gin martinis tremendously! I also like skiing, water skiing, swimming and running.

Related Links

Link icon Gary Hieftje's page at Indiana University
Read more about Hieftje's work here

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Also of interest

Warning indicators for the presence of plasma-related matrix effects in inductively coupled plasma-atomic emission spectrometry
George C.-Y. Chan and Gary M. Hieftje, J. Anal. At. Spectrom., 2008, 23, 181
DOI: 10.1039/b706837a

Use of vertically resolved plasma emission as an indicator for flagging matrix effects and system drift in inductively coupled plasma-atomic emission spectrometry
George C.-Y. Chan and Gary M. Hieftje, J. Anal. At. Spectrom., 2008, 23, 193
DOI: 10.1039/b706838g

Photo of Norbert Jakubowski

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