When I am not a below-average low-budget writer, I assume the very productive and bit more lucrative role of a chromatographer.
To a layman chromatography is Greek I agree, but as I evolve as a writer, I find myself evolving as a chromatographer too!
My job involves as much skill, intelligence and patience as writing!
Although the word chromatography has been derived from the separation of colorful bands on a paper plate, modern chromatography has gone ages ahead of that. I don’t want to go into the technical mumbo-jumbo (as I want my prospects as a writer to stay intact) but these days chromatography is getting more efficient and enjoyable.
It reminds me of the running races in school they used to have during sports week.
When they made us stand in a row at the starting point; irrespective of our sizes or energy levels. At the blow of whistle, the hyperactive brat infamous as the “class-clown” usually bolted ahead of everyone and reached the finish line first. And the bespectacled, chubby, saturnine class topper usually finished last. The rest, ranging from moderately volatile to outrageously inactive finished in between.
This is exactly how it works. There is a thirty-meter long almost anorexic column. The Internal Diameter is 0.25 mm. It is coiled up into a pretty spiral and mounted on a stand inside an oven (similar to the one you bake cakes in, but I haven’t tried baking cakes in it as yet).
The mixture you wish to analyze is injected at the on end of this column and various components of the mixture run across to reach the detector at the other end in ascending order of their molecular weights. So the lightest makes it first and is detected as a peak on the computer. We can find out what anything is made up of, if we have a gas and a liquid chromatograph. The area of these peaks increases as their amount in the mixture. So we have a nice X-Y diagram to look at and feel like Sherlock Holmes.
What I say is very basic. These days, chromatographs have a lot of added accessories. Earlier when there were no computers, they used to get a mechanical device to print the chromatograms like cardiograms. Chromatographers then measured the areas of the peaks manually and calculated results. Now, we have state-of-the-art workstation software where we can edit, modify, crop and integrate the chromatograms the way we want to. Just like those picture editing software you get where you can turn yourself into Angelina Jolie !
We don’t have to do a lot of detective work in finding out the identities of the compounds as our ancestors did. They couple the machines with digital libraries with a formidable amount of compounds that could be found on earth. So it is relatively easy.
For biological analyses, we use liquid chromatography where a “liquid” assists the components of a mixture to reach the detector. This technique doesn’t have an oven. A pump, quite naturally replaces the oven, as we are handling a liquid. There is no heating involved so liquid chromatography takes care of the thermally unstable compounds that break down at higher temperatures.
For the analysis of volatile and ethereal compounds we use the Gas Chromatograph. Where the compounds that need to be found out are escorted to the detector through the column by an inert gas (the kind of gas that stays aloof and doesn’t fight or fall in love with any of the compounds under consideration). This technique has an oven to heat up the column so that the vapors are swiftly directed to the detector. We analyze perfumes and pesticides using this technique. Although these are not the only things, that can be analyzed using a GC (yeah the world is full of acronyms)
These GCs or LCs are coupled with fashionable detectors. Sometimes they use a flame detector that checks your sample for carbon-based lighter compounds like alcohols and ring structures. Sometimes they have a phosphorous detector for carbon and phosphorous containing compounds. Or sometimes you just get a universal Mass Detector called the Mass Spectrograph which uses seriously high voltages in a tiny, almost dangerously evacuated cup created by a donut shaped electrode. I know I have sublimated into Greek now, but I am trying to keep it to simple Greek!
So when I am not busy writing, I am busy finding out the ingredients of Lavender oil to check if some ingenious trader has mixed synthetic aromas in it and is selling it as “natural lavender oil” in a nauseatingly purple container. Or I am measuring the rate of release of steroids on an LC or I am analyzing drinking water for the presence of pesticides (NO I don’t go public with my findings and turn into an unpopular celebrity! :P)
It is a great job! I need to shuttle back and forth from one lab to the other. Sometimes I need to stand for long hours for getting the samples ready to go into the column. Sometimes I have to rack my brains on the software and sometimes I have to read boring manuals for troubleshooting! :)
It is an eventful job nonetheless. Which gets me tired and in between two runs on the GC or the LC, gives me bright ideas for my literary expeditions.