Triboelectric Nanogenerators Boost Mass Spectrometry Performance

Triboelectric nanogenerators (TENG) convert mechanical energy harvested from the environment to electricity for powering small devices such as sensors or for recharging consumer electronics. Now, researchers have harnessed these devices to improve the charging of molecules in a way that dramatically boosts the sensitivity of a widely-used chemical analysis technique.

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have shown that replacing conventional power supplies with TENG devices for charging the molecules being analyzed can boost the sensitivity of mass spectrometers to unprecedented levels. The improvement also allows identification to be done with smaller sample volumes, potentially conserving precious biomolecules or chemical mixtures that may be available only in minute quantities.

Though the mechanism by which the enhancement takes place requires more study, the researchers believe the unique aspects of the TENG output – oscillating high voltage and controlled current – allow improvements in the ionization process, increasing the voltage applied without damaging samples or the instrument. The research, which was supported by the National Science Foundation, NASA Astrobiology Program and the Department of Energy, is reported February 27 in the journal Nature Nanotechnology

“Our discovery is basically a new and very controlled way of putting charge onto molecules,” said Facundo Fernández, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemistry and Biochemistry who uses mass spectrometry to study everything from small drug molecules to large proteins. "We know exactly how much charge we produce using these nanogenerators, allowing us to reach sensitivity levels that are unheard-of – at the zeptomole scale. We can measure down to literally hundreds of molecules without tagging.”

Fernández and his research team worked with Zhong Lin Wang, a pioneer in developing the TENG technology. Wang, a Regents professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Materials Science and Engineering, said the TENGs provide consistent charging levels that produce quantized ion pulses of adjustable duration, polarity and frequency.