Lourdes Ramos: "Miniaturization is a key factor for a greener chemistry"

26 enero 2017

Lourdes Ramos is a Scientific Researcher at the Department of Instrumental Analysis and Environmental Chemistry, in the Institute of Organic Chemistry (CSIC, Madrid, Spain). Expert in miniaturization of analytical methods, her team has even patented new instrumentation in this field. She has been recently included in the first all-women Power List by the Analytical Scientist magazine as one of the 50 most influential women in the analytical sciences worldwide.

Lourdes Ramos is a Scientific Researcher at the Department of Instrumental Analysis and Environmental Chemistry, in the Institute of Organic Chemistry (CSIC, Madrid, Spain). Expert in miniaturization of analytical methods, her team has even patented new instrumentation in this field. She has been recently included in the first all-women Power List by the Analytical Scientist magazine as one of the 50 most influential women in the analytical sciences worldwide.

What are you working on right now?


In this department, we have been working for almost 30 years on the determination of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), those regulated by the Stockholm Convention, in all kinds of environmental samples, sediments, air, biota, food, etc. My role is to develop new analytical methods to determinate both these well known pollutants and to detect emerging and, more recently, unknown pollutants. During the last 18 years, I have worked on the development of innovative miniaturized sample preparation procedures looking for the simplification and the possibility of automatize at least part of this process.

Which are the benefits of these methods?


These miniaturized sample preparation procedures allow us to process more samples in less time, with less solvent and sorbents consumption and to reduce waste generation. Therefore, the process becomes much greener, especially considering that some chemical reagents involved in POP analysis are not environmental friendly. Apart from the improved throughput, these procedures have a positive economic impact at other levels: they contribute to reduce costs both in terms of time and energy consumption as compared with the conventional (i.e, large size) procedures in use. Miniaturization is definitely a key factor when trying to green the analytical process.

How can these new methods be applied?


The samples we work with are usually very complex, and they require a series of sequential treatment steps. First, we have to extract the investigated compounds from the matrix in which they are entrapped. This process should be exhaustive and quantitative because they should be accurately determined at trace levels. Then, they should be isolated from co-extracted matrix components and from other chemically related compounds that could interfere in their final determination. All these steps are usually carried out as separated treatments. My goal is to integrate all these processes as much as possible and, when possible, to perform all of them simultaneously in a single step and with the smallest sample size. In that way, we save on fungibles and generate less waste, as mentioned, but also reduce sample manipulation and the risk of analyte lost or degradation. We apply these methods, for example, on POPs analysis and monitoring in different substrates of ecosystems: soil, sediments, vegetation and animal tissues, but also for food and feedstuffs analyses.

How can these methods be applied in other fields?


Our methods are useful for all kind of control laboratories that work on the determination of these regulated pollutants, or other organic pollutants, such as pesticides. Any laboratory, either public or private, can benefice from our methodologies. In most cases, they do not require any extra instrumentation although, for some processes, we have also developed and patented special equipment. We think that, in this emerging research field, collaboration with industrial partners is essential in order to produce and make available to everyone the appropriate instrumentation still missing in this application area.

You are also working on the AVANSECAL project. What is it about?


AVANSECAL is a joint program supported by the Madrid Autonomous Community that involves several research centres, universities and CSIC institutes from Madrid, with almost 90 researches participating. It focuses on the development of new analytical strategies to solve problems concerning food quality and security, in close relationship with food industries. Within this project, for example, we have studied the lixiviation of several kinds of pollutants from plastic food containers towards food simulants. I have conducted a non-oriented analysis on the presence of volatile and semi-volatile organic pollutants in these lixiviates. The results are very interesting, but not alarming, and they have not been published yet.
Another interesting part of this study focused on food plastic containers modified with silver nanoparticles, such as plastic bags and tuppers, whose use is already banned in the European Union and some other countries. These nanoparticles are added in order to extend the life of foods, as silver is a biocide. They are supposed to attack microbes and bacteria without affecting the human body. However, it is now known that, once these nanoparticles enter living organisms, they might go through cell walls. Also, a high percentage of those nanoparticles are modified and transformed into dissolved silver species during the lixiviation process. Silver nanoparticles are able to get through intestinal barriers. All these results have already been published.

How do you feel after having been included in the first all-women Power List by the Analytical Scientist magazine?


I was certainly surprised. When I see these lists, I always think that those people are at a much higher level than I, so I did not expect it at all. It has been a great recognition for the whole research team and the work we have done during these years. We were one of the pioneer groups in the world working on the miniaturization of sample preparation analytical methods for solid or semi-solid samples, and today there are still only a few people working in this field. This recognition means that we are in the right direction. On the other hand, this list was created after a more general list, which included mostly men. Although there are many women working on analytical chemistry, we are still far from equality and, as in many other research sectors, the presence of women diminishes as the relevance of the position increases.

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