Ben Colman shows the new ICP-MS machine that will be used for environmental monitoring. The machine was won in contest and will stay at UM for a year.

Upon entering a cold and noisy room in the Charles H Clapp Building  a small machine with a robotic hand, known as the autosampler, collects samples and passes them inside the machine with a loud “woosh.” 

“It's nerve-wracking and looks kind of frightening,” said Ben Colman, co-director of the University of Montana’s Environmental Biogeochemistry Lab and associate professor in the Aquatic Ecosystem Ecology department, while he showed off his $450 thousand machine. 

“This is completely safe; it just gives you a feeling of those sci-fi movies,” he said.

The autosampler is one part of the inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS), which has many uses, from environmental monitoring to clinical studies and producing semiconductors. According to PerkinElmer, the machine’s manufacturer, only five other universities in the US possess this equipment: Yale University, the University of California-Irvine, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Connecticut and the University of New Mexico.

The machine arrived in Colman's lab in September 2022, but he might have to part with it if he cannot secure funding to keep it by the end of this year. After being rejected three times by the National Science Foundation (NSF), Colman participated in a contest launched by PerkinElmer. His lab came in first among a hundred other applicants and was awarded a brand new NexION 5000 ICP-MS. The lab can keep the machine for free for a year, after which they can purchase it for half the cost.

“In terms of understanding the concentrations of different contaminants in the environment, organisms in the environment, whether the regulations we have in place are adequate to protect those organisms and ecosystem – there is really no way to measure these things without an ICP-MS,” said Colman. 

In general, ICP-MS is a piece of scientific equipment to measure the concentration of different elements in liquid samples. The process involves breaking down the molecules in the sample into atoms, charging each atom, and analyzing the resulting beam of ions to find the concentrations of different elements.

“The process looks similar to a plasma ball,” Colman said. 

The machine has the capacity to run up to 80 tests simultaneously and can generate data in about three minutes. To analyze an object that is not liquid, it needs to be dissolved into a solution and turned into a liquid first. One of his students is liquifying dry muscles, livers, and gills to study fish tissue.

ICP-MS has existed in the scientific industry since the 1980’s and UM previously had an ICP-MS for seventeen years before it finally broke down 3 years ago. Colman said part of the machine’s importance in the lab is its accuracy, and how it gives students the opportunity to work with premier technology. 

“There is always a possibility of having interferences whenever we’re measuring something. It looks like the thing we’re trying to measure, but they’re not exactly the same thing we’re looking for,” Colman said.

The NexION 5000 Multi-quadrupole ICP-MS is currently the most advanced system available, according to Ruth Wolf, the principal field application scientist at PerkinElmer. The machine's advanced technology and multi-quadrupole mass filter make it highly efficient in detecting various elements, even at levels below 0.1 part per trillion. Despite its high cost, the machine is considered an invaluable resource for research in environmental monitoring and product testing.

“The machine will make Dr. Colman’s lab an excellent resource for challenging applications in the state of Montana, as well as throughout the Rocky Mountain Region,” Wolf added. 

It's essential to maintain a clean and controlled environment when operating the ICP-MS machine, as any contamination can affect the accuracy of the results. That's why the lab has a set clean room, with high air pressure and a temperature of around 70 degrees to prevent any unwanted particles from entering the room. In addition, the air is filtered every minute to ensure a clean environment for the machine. Colman and his team, which consists of a research assistant and a graduate student, are responsible for handling the equipment and ensuring that it is running smoothly.

When the lab was out of a sample analyzing machine for the past couple of years, it sent samples elsewhere. That would result in students missing out on getting hands-on experience with the equipment. 

“You don’t wanna collect a sample and sit on it.” said Colman, “On top of it, students don't learn to troubleshoot when things go wrong.”

But the lack of funding may take away that liberty again. And Colman believes it would be a loss not only for his lab but for a larger community that utilizes the machine for different purposes. 

The lab is open to a whole range of different users beyond just the lab group. Organizations like the US Geological Survey and the Missoula Water Quality District send samples to test on a fleet of instruments at UM. No other institution has the latest version of this cutting-edge technology instrument in Montana, apart from UM. 

“I really don’t want the instrument to leave. If we have to have bake sales, I don’t know how many bake sales you’d need to get a quarter million dollars, but I’ll get the funding – one way or another,” Colman said. 


Correction on Wed. March 29, 2023:

In the original article the title and story stated that the machine was $450 million. The machine is actually $450,000.