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Advances in Cannabis Mass Spectroscopy: A Q&A With Jeffrey Williams

By Alexander Beadle

Published: May 13, 2020   

The Massbox, image courtesy of Exum Instruments

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As an analytical chemist, Jeffrey Williams wondered how he might build better tools for the scientific world. His thinking led him to leave his pursuit of academia and start Exum Instruments, the Denver-based company behind the newly-launched, all-in-one analysis machine, the Massbox.

With the Massbox being officially unveiled to the world at Pittcon 2020, Analytical Cannabis caught up with Williams to discuss how these new developments in analytical chemistry might come to shape the cannabis industry.

Alexander Beadle (AB): How did Exum Instruments get started?

Jeffrey Williams (JW): It’s a fun story for sure. My background is in cosmochemistry and so I came from using mass spectrometers and analyzing meteorites. I did a lot of work with the Curiosity rover and LIBS [Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy] analysis, and I hated LIBS. So, I had a mini thought experiment: how would I build better mass spectrometer for the Curiosity rover? Eventually, my friends and I came up with the initial stages of what eventually turned into the Laser Abolition Laser Ionization (LALI) technique, which is what makes the Massbox.

I had been reading a lot of books and listened to a lot of podcasts on entrepreneurial pursuits and I decided, I want to give this a go. So, I decided not to finish my PhD, and started the company in a garage.

After a few interactions of the first prototype, we got the first proof of concept of the technology working. That was enough for us to get manufacturing partners – like TOFWerks – and simultaneously to investors coming on board for a small funding round. In June of last year, we built the first prototype and that kickstarted us into a larger round of funding and onwards to designing the finished product – the Massbox.

It’s an all-in-one, easy-to-use package that fits on a desktop. The touchscreen, the computer, everything is fully built-in. There’s no vacuum pumps on the ground, no gas bottle on your wall, no third computer that you need in order to run half of the instrument. It’s just one box, with one power cord out the back, it’s super easy to use.

AB: And with the Massbox, Exum also developed the software that comes with it?

JW: Yes, that was a big focus of mine and another reason why I decided that there was a need for this.

Scientific instruments are the worst to use. Scientists are still dealing with parts of instruments that are written in protocols from before the internet; the whole user interface and user experience design, it’s terrible to use.

When I really broke down what we were doing, I realized that fundamentally there’s nothing more complicated than that’s happening on our phones. There’s no reason why we can’t make this a nice experience where you can choose what you want to analyze, and press go; press a couple of other options, and press quantify. When you’re done, it gets emailed to you, it gets stored remotely, and you can play with your data on the same instrument, or on the same interface on another computer.

And so, to answer your question, I really wanted to focus on the hardware-software interface and make something that’s new technology which makes the analysis and the chemistry easy, and then a new software that really enables that experience. 

AB: Yourself and yo
ur colleague Jon Putman, Exum’s sales engineer and application specialist, recently wrote a column in Spectroscopy discussing the laser ablation laser ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometry (LALI-TOF-MS) method used in the Massbox. Would you be able to give us an overview of the principles behind the method?

JW: It’s a two-laser system, and you can use it on any sort of solid phase sample – whether that’s a metal, a rock, a pressed powder, or biological materials. As long as it is solid and flat, you can use it in the Massbox and it will find a way to tell you what’s in it!

A first laser comes in at 90-degrees to the sample surface and ablates it. This is like hitting concrete with a hammer, it creates a big cloud of neutral particles above the sample. There will also be some ions formed by the laser in a plasma, and that is what is utilized by a lot of other techniques. But what we want are those neutral particles, because these are less dependent on the matrix.

That is to say, if you’re analyzing wood or if you’re analyzing a metal, how that plasma forms is going to be really matrix-dependent because it is an energy-limited system in that plasma. Whereas, how a laser couples to those materials is much closer, and you’re going to get a more representative amount of material that is brought up in that particle cloud.

And so, once we have that cloud, we take a secondary laser that is parallel to the sample surface and ionize those neutral particles that are present in those representative ratios. From there, we can take those ions and feed them into a time-of-flight spectrometer[…] and make a mass spectrum at every laser pulse. That’s one of the cool things as well, is that with every laser shot we have a full mass spectrum there. And so we can make a chemical image and map out the iron, or the heavy metals, or whatever you’re interested in at every pulse.

AB: You mention that one advantage of this method is the minimization of matrix effects. As I’m sure you know, cannabis is quite a complicated matrix — do you see the Massbox as potentially being an answer to the needs of the cannabis testing industry?

JW: In the cannabis industry right now, the best methods for analysis normally involve dissolving your sample, undergoing a bunch of dilutions, creating calibration curves, etc.

Our idea is that instead of undergoing all of that chemistry, what if we made it so scientists were able to just take their flower, or the oil, or whatever is needed to be analyzed, and to test that. They could grind up the flower, hit it with a laser, and not have to worry about all of these dilutions and calibration curves, because our method has really, really low detection limits – below what the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] or any of the state’s regulations require – all from solid samples.

AB: Does Exum have any other projects in the pipeline that might be of interest to the cannabis industry?

JW: Cannabis is a part of our method development that we’re going to be releasing an application note on within the next few months. We really think that we can make a big difference here, with the fact that our method can go down to these very low deletion limits.

A lot of the feedback we have been hearing from the cannabis industry has been that they don’t have the same access to the kinds of highly-trained staff that have been running analytical laboratories within the pharmaceuticals industry, and that there aren’t really methodologies in place for taking care of the matrix effects that happen. And, of course, there’s a large overhang and a large learning curve in order to get ahead of the regulation. We can get ahead, and we can help smaller businesses to certify their products for all of these things and help them differentiate themselves.

What we want to work on as well is getting methodologies in place for all of the different cannabis products – not just the flower, but for gummies, chocolates, those kinds of products – where you can have this one machine and have it analyzed easily. Also, this is lesser-so developed than the inorganic analysis [at the moment], but we are going to be releasing application notes on organic analysis in the coming months, and this will allow for the simultaneous measurement of pesticides and other organic concentrations in a sample, while also looking for trace metals.  

We are definitely looking for people to reach out and start some projects with us and just get the conversation going about what they need in their lab. We want to really keep learning about what we can provide to the cannabis industry and making sure that we are moving in the direction that they need, not just the one that we’re assuming they might need.


Jeffrey Williams was speaking to Alexander Beadle, science writer for Analytical Cannabis.

Alexander Beadle

Science Writer

Alexander Beadle has been working as a freelance science writer since 2017 and has covered the cannabis industry for Analytical Cannabis since 2018. He has also written for our sister publication, Technology Networks, and the cannabis industry consultant firm Prohibition Partners, among others. Alexander holds a Master's in Materials Chemistry from the University of St. Andrews, where he won a Chemistry Purdie scholarship, and conducted research into zeolite crystal growth mechanisms and the action of single-molecule transistors.


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