Discrete or Continuous Flow Analysis – which is better?

A wide variety of factors affect the choice of analytical instrument. These include target workload (samples/hour), variety of chemistries, methods required, bench space, staff availability etc. In the following article Lalicia Potter, Technical Sales & Support Director at SEAL Analytical, examines one of the common decisions facing laboratory managers.

As the manufacturer of an instrumentation range that includes both discrete analyzers and continuous segmented flow analyzers, SEAL Analytical’s technical support chemists are often asked which is the better technique. Both offer fast, automated, colorimetric analysis of multiple samples, however, the answer depends on the current and future analytical requirements of the laboratory.

Descrete Analyser

Descrete Analyser

SEAL’s discrete analysers employ sample trays and discrete reaction wells in which the colorimetric reaction takes place. In contrast, segmented flow analysers (SFA) employ a continuous flow of samples and reagent, segregated by air bubbles within tubing and mixing coils.

In general terms, discrete analysers are ideal when automation is a priority and/or when many and varied tests are needed on different samples. SFA is ideal when a larger number of samples are to be analysed for a smaller number of chemistries. However, both techniques are flexible, so it is important that expert advice is sought in the choice of analyzer and that the instrument is configured to meet the precise needs of the laboratory.

Discrete Analysers
In order to minimise operator involvement, SEAL’s discrete analyzers are highly automated and simple to set up and run, even overnight. A robotic sampling arm works in conjunction with a stepper motor-driven syringe that is responsible for aspirating, dispensing and mixing accurate and precise quantities of sample and reagent. The SEAL AQ1 and AQ2 discrete analyzers can run seven different chemistries from each sample in the same run – and another seven in another run. These instruments have three separate wash stations including a unique probe washer, so cross-contamination is not a problem. This unique washing feature means that even ammonia (using Phenate), nitrate by cadmium reduction– (using ammonium chloride buffer) and low level phenol can be run together with no issues.

SEAL has also built an auto-dilution feature into the discrete analysers for preparing standards automatically and handling over-range samples. These diluted sample results are automatically bracketed by QC sets.

The reproducibility and detection limits of these discrete analysers have been optimised by ensuring that each sample is read in the same optical glass cuvette with a 10mm path length. The sample is always read in the same position in front of the detector, which eliminates any potential issues with scratching or reaction well variability that can be found with direct-read systems. Since the liquid is moved and not the tray; fewer moving
parts maximises reliability.

Most discrete analysers employ miniaturised components to reduce reagent consumption and waste costs. For example, both the AQ1 and AQ2 analysers use just 20 to 400µl of reagent per sample.

Segmented Flow Autoanalysers
Based on the original tried and tested technology of the Technicon™ /Bran Luebbe™ AutoAnalyzer, today’s SFAs deliver fast, accurate analysis for enormous numbers of samples; the QuAAtro for example can run up to 600 tests per hour. SFA’s are also highly automated and once the analyzer is configured and the reagents and samples are loaded, reliable unattended operation is a major benefit.

Flow Analyser

Flow Analyser

A basic SFA system consists of an autosampler, a peristaltic pump, a chemistry manifold, a detector and AACE data acquisition software. Sample and reagents are pumped continuously through the chemistry manifold and
air bubbles are introduced at precisely defined intervals, forming unique reaction segments which are mixed using glass coils. With SFA, even slow reactions run to completion and the ratio of sample to reagents in the detector reaches a constant maximum value; the steady-state condition.

SFAs have been developed for running a few parameters on a larger number of samples, and the SEAL SFAs are the system of choice for marine and seawater organisations and anyone running very low nutrient waters. The SEAL AutoAnalyzer 3 and QuAAtro deliver high levels of performance and reproducibility, and are also the systems of choice for tobacco, soil and fertiliser testing around the world. These analysers provide maximum sensitivity by ensuring that the reaction always goes to completion, and with a digital true dual-beam detection system with real time referencing, the highest reproducibility and very lowest detection limits are achieved.

In summary, when choosing the most appropriate analytical technique, it is important to consider both the current and likely future needs of the laboratory. However, one of the reasons behind the large numbers of SEAL instruments in laboratories around the globe, is that each analyzer has been configured to meet the individual needs of its laboratory. So, it is good practice to contact SEAL’s technical support team at an early stage because if the question is: “Which technique is better,” the answer is: “It depends…”

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