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What is it that analytical chemists do?


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Ursula E. Spichiger-Keller is Professor at the Swiss Fed-eral Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich. In 1994 she opened the Centre for Chemical Sensors at ETH-Technopark (http://www.chemsens.ethz.ch). The Centre works as a cost center without direct financial support by ETHZ. Technology transfer and industrial collaboration are, therefore, major goals of the institution.

Her scientific interests are chemical information science and continuous process monitoring; molecular recogni-tion; development of sensors and bioassays; and develop-ment of optical and electrochemical micro- and nanode-vices.

Her future goal is to found a centre for chemical infor-mation science and technology as a joint venture with partners from science and industry.

If I want to draw public attention to our field of re-search and our products, that is, if I go public, I have to explain to lay people and investors what our aims are in an informative and easily digestible way. I need to use ex-amples and, even more importantly, a language everybody can understand. What is it, then, that we do every day in Analytical Chemistry?

Gary M. Hieftje called our discipline “the science of measurements and instrumentation” [1]. Royce W. Mur-ray cited a claim by president Bruce Alberts of the Na-tional Academy of Science in the USA: “What is mea-sured in high-stakes assessments has a profound effect on human behavior” and a corollary: “We must be exceed-ingly careful to make sure that we measure what counts” [2]. The first quotation is certainly correct and relevant, and in synergy with Bruce Alberts claim and corollary.

In line with these statements, the following examples show that if Analytical Chemistry did not already exist, it would have to be invented immediately. Without Analyti-cal Chemistry it would not be possible to trace BSE anti-bodies, to quantify glucose in blood specimens, or pesti-cides, herbipesti-cides, VOCS, TOC1, and heavy metals in en-vironmental specimens. The progress made in clinical chemical analysis since my first steps in the field in 1968 has been enormous, and I agree with Renato Zenobi when he says that we should be proud to be Analytical Chemists (“Chin up, Chest out” [3]). I do, nevertheless, feel some-what helpless if I have to explain to a lay person some-what it is we analytical chemists actually do.

Talking about “analysis” implies dealing with a major branch of mathematics, psychology, or business strate-gies. “Chemistry and chemical compounds” tend to be viewed negatively by the public so I try to avoid the terms. In sensor research, in particular, I claim to work or measure “without using chemical reagents”. This is espe-cially important if the chemical information to be

ob-Ursula E. Spichiger-Keller

What is it that analytical chemists do?

Fresenius J Anal Chem (2001) 371 : 283–284

DOI 10.1007/s002160100951

Published online: 16 August 2001 E D I TO R I A L

U.E. Spichiger-Keller (✉) Centre for Chemical Sensors/

Biosensors and bioAnalytical Chemistry, ETHZ, Technopark, Technoparkstr. 1, 8005 Zurich, Switzerland

e-mail: Spichiger@chemsens.pharma.anbi.ethz.ch © Springer-Verlag 2001


tained is related to the life sciences and to the medical and biological environments. Finally, why should we have to make use of chemical compounds at all to measure some-thing? There are many other ways of measuring a quan-tity!

In the end I came to the conclusion that what all types of technology in Analytical Chemistry have in common is that they aim to obtain chemical information about the state of a source so that this information can be used to make decisions. For decision making the result of chemi-cal analysis must be linked with the expert decision by an information chain. This information chain is: determina-tion; interpretadetermina-tion; and action. The action is the conse-quence of a cut-off value including a range of uncertainty set as a decision limit. By applying cut-off values, the an-alytical results are reduced to a binary scale. This proce-dure is well-known in medical diagnosis and environmen-tal monitoring. Such an information chain is the basis of any process or bioprocess to be controlled on the basis of results of a continuous monitoring system. The cut-off val-ues are not necessarily valval-ues of a single quantity, how-ever, but rather of a set of quantities which enable imag-ing of the process in the virtual environment. With “chem-ical information systems” installed close to the source (on line, in line, at line), a cost-effective strategy for process control can be developed on the basis of an optimized and effective strategy of chemical analysis. Let me give an ex-ample.

The chemical analysis system might be a system incor-porating an array of chemical sensors which serves to yield chemical information. For continuous monitoring close to the source highly automated chemical analysis is necessary. The results should enable reproduction of the chemical processes at the source in a virtual environment. The accuracy of the analytical data is guaranteed by peri-odic, automated recalibration. Expert decisions are, in this instance, based on the results of the sensor array, multi-variate data analysis, data reduction, and data presenta-tion, not to mention expert systems capable of validating and interpreting data. For bioprocesses, the chemical tar-get compounds are termed “biomarkers”. Such biomark-ers are feed compounds and metabolites such as

carbohy-drates, ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, amines, alcohols, acetate, anions, and cations such as magnesium ions. The transient activity of these biomarkers enables the state of a biolog-ical system (reproduction of cells, growth inhibition, steady-state) to be described. It enables the process to be optimized by feed-back control and, in addition, informa-tion to be obtained on toxic species, for example heavy metals, cyanide, etc. By using the term “biomarkers”, I avoid speaking about “chemical compounds”.

Because we are in the information technology millen-nium, we can expect most people to understand the term “chemical information” derived from the results yielded, and “chemical information systems” and “chemical infor-mation units” denoting the measuring systems. It might well be that in chemical sensor research and process analysis plausible explanations of our activities are even harder to give than in other fields of Analytical Chemistry. I will, nevertheless, use the term “Chemical Information Technology” in my next presentations and talk about re-search in “Chemical Information Science”. I will use the term “biomarkers” to refer to the analytes or chemical compounds to be analyzed in biological processes which are related to the chemistry of C, H, N, O, S, and to the vi-tal salts and trace elements.

By using these terms we can begin to show how Ana-lytical Chemistry is relevant to society in the sense of: “What is measured in high-stakes assessments has a pro-found effect on human behavior.” and “We must be ex-ceedingly careful to make sure that we measure what counts.” Having these claims in mind, we will feel in-clined to present a diagnosis of a source rather than ana-lytical data. At the Centre for Chemical Sensors/Biosen-sors and bioAnalytical Chemistry we are offering tools which are able to solve problems in Chemical Information Science and Technology.


1. Hieftje GM (2000) Anal Chem 72:309A 2. Murray RW (1997) Anal Chem 69:443A 3. Zenobi R (2000) Anal Chem 72:245A 284


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