Mass Spectacle of Myself 11/19/22

History of Richard Bleil

There are a variety of chemistry disciplines.  For example, a biochemist looks at the mechanisms of biological chemistry, such as how pharmaceuticals work, and an organic chemistry looks to discover how to make those pharmaceuticals in a laboratory.  The “heart” of chemistry, in my humble opinion, is analytical chemistry.  There are two types of analytical chemists, qualitative (identifying unknown chemicals) and quantitative (determining the concentration of chemicals).  The two really go hand in hand.  For example, if there is a “cancer cluster” somewhere, it’s the analytical chemist who will look to identify what carcinogenic compounds are in the area (in the air, soil, water and so forth) and at what concentration so the problem can be mitigated properly. 

One of the premiere tools of an analytical chemist is the Gas Chromatograph (GC) Mass Spectrograph (MS).  These instruments easily cost upwards of a million dollars new.  These days, they’re about the size of the 3-D printer that I currently have sitting on a desk in the other room, but they weren’t always so compact.  Even back when I was just getting out of my undergraduate studies (mid ‘80’s), a chemist with a bachelor’s degree and two years GC/MS experience could easily land a six-figure salary. 

The first company that hired me out of college was an analytical laboratory with a GC/MS that was not functioning.  It had been unplugged for a couple of years and they were not sure if they could even get it running again.  They really didn’t want to hire an experience GC/MS chemist and pay that much money for an instrument that might not even work.  So, instead, they opted to hire a wet-behind-the-ears newly minted chemist straight out of college with at least some electronics background.  My father was an electrical engineer (of sorts, but his title was different) for a large corporation, and he trained me on electronics.  I can read an electrical schematic as easily as a road map, neither skill being terribly common in this day and age. 

Within a month, I had the GC/MS up and running to within manufacturer specifications.  There was not a part of that instrument that didn’t have my fingerprints on it.  Now, this MS was huge.  It was probably eight to ten feet long, and four to six feet wide with all of its components, and it generated a lot of heat.  When I arrived, it was in the largest room in the building because that was the only room with an air conditioner.  I shared the room with the lab manager, but, unfortunately, she eventually decided that she wanted her own private room.  I guess it’s understandable.  There are times that a lab manager needs privacy to hold meetings, so she opted to move the instrument into its own room.

The room they moved it into was very small for the size instrument.  I could get behind the instrument, but only sideways and if I squeezed.  They put a desk in the room, and I literally moved from the desk to the instrument control panel by simply rotating my chair.  It was tight.  But what’s worse, it was not air conditioned.

The heat in that room was excessive, in the summer exceeding a hundred degrees.  I repeatedly warned my supervisor about the dangers of having it operating under these conditions and repeatedly begged for an air conditioner to no effect.  The instrument became unstable, often taking several hours just to get it up and running on any given day. 

To give you some idea of these conditions, my favorite day was in the middle of winter.  It was, literally, single digit temperatures outside, and the heat in the building went out.  Had I been the boss I would have sent people home, but of course I’m a terrible boss.  That day, I had the women who worked in the front office visit me throughout the day, not because of my oh so charming personality (very similar to that of a bobby pin), but because my room never dropped below mid-seventies in temperature. 

About a year later, I found a new job and turned in my two-week notification.  After one week, I simply couldn’t get the GC/MS to boot up.  I tried the usual things to get it working but to no avail.  I squeezed behind the instrument when I finally say it.

The GC/MS had a water coolant line for one component of the instrument so it wouldn’t overheat.  The brilliant engineers who designed this instrument ran the coolant line over the motherboard of the computer.  Sure enough, in the high temperature and high humidity of the room (that I had been recording in the logbook for just such an eventuality), water had condensed on the line, dripped onto the motherboard, and scorched a hole in it about the size of a dime.  The GC/MS was dead, and my boss was sure I had sabotaged it.  Had it not been for that record book I’m sure they would have tried to sue.  As it is, there is a person out there who is sure that I still owe her a half million dollars. 

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