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September 2010- The American Chemical Society (ACS) has awarded Robert Cotter, Ph.D., with the prestigious Frank H. Field and Joe L. Franklin Award for outstanding achievement in mass spectrometry, a technique used to identify individual components in unknown samples and to analyze known chemical samples in exquisite detail.
Cotter has been building mass spectrometers since he was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins in the Chemistry department at Homewood in the early 1970s. He has revolutionized time-of-flight mass spectrometry, in which a sample is blasted into bits with a LASER in an electric field and the resulting particles go tearing out of the field down a long tube. The lightest particles reach the end of the tube first and the heaviest particles last. There, a plate catches the particles and a detector determines how fast it takes each particle to get to the plate. The information is then converted into a chart that displays a range of masses, known as the spectrum, which can be compared to spectra from other known particles of the same mass to identify an unknown material.
“His original work made LASER mass spectrometry essentially a ’scientific household‘ procedure,” says Phil Cole, director of Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences and E.K. Marshall and Thomas H. Maren Professor. “He’s been part of the technological advances from the early years in terms of making mass spectroscopy more high-quality in terms of the data being more robust and user friendly.”
Cotter developed new LASERs to increase the sensitivity of mass spectrometers. He also developed the technique of reflecting the particles back after they have been blasted with the LASER to improve the resolution, allowing the ability to determine that two different particles of similar mass were actually different materials. Finally, he has miniaturized the machines for more convenient use. He is even developing a small mass spectrometer that is expected to go on a Mars mission in 2018 to look for signs of life by trying to identify biological molecules.
“He’s a very great, community-spirited person,” says Cole. “He’s a person that people look to for guidance to where research should be going—a so-called guru. It’s very appropriate that he is awarded with this reward, which I view as the top award in mass spectrometry.”
This award comes one year after he was awarded the ACS Analytical Division Award in Chemical Instrumentation.
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