Katrina’s Other Resonance

As a graduate student researcher, I work in a mass spectrometry lab with five different types of spectrometers. These instruments are highly sensitive to the environment (and also extremely expensive), and small perturbations or temperature fluctuations can be very harmful. This means that every power outage, building exhaust issue, and volatile substance can cause our lab’s collective blood pressure to rise considerably.

Given that our instruments are essential to our work and it would be hugely detrimental to the lab should anything happen to them, it caught my eye when earlier this week I saw a story on researchers who were working at Tulane University when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. Chemistry and Engineering News reported on the efforts of Scott Grayson, a new assistant chemistry professor at the time, who worked to save spectroscopy instruments. For the 10-year anniversary of Katrina, there’s been significant press coverage on the state of New Orleans, and while some areas have come back strong, the city in its entirety still has not fully recovered. However there are many small success stories to be celebrated, and this is one of them. In the aftermath of Katrina, a small team of chemistry faculty members at Tulane University broke into their building with the assistance of National Guard members to save 4 nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy instruments, each worth more than $1 million.

But to begin with, we need to understand why NMR machines became a top priority for faculty members in the first place. As its name suggests, NMR spectroscopy is based on superconducting magnets within the instrument. These magnets are then used to apply a magnetic field to a sample, so that the magnetic properties of the sample can be studied, all done at the level of the atom. The resulting data can give insight into molecular structure as well as biochemical and metabolic characteristics of biological samples. However, in order to be sensitive enough to capture such information, these extremely powerful magnets must be run at a high current to create the necessary magnetic field. This means that they must consist of superconducting materials to prevent electrical resistance and therefore must be kept below cryogenic temperature, at approximately -269˚C. This is made possible by keeping the magnets in baths of two different elements: liquid helium and nitrogen. However as these liquids boil at low temperatures and become gaseous very quickly, they must be replenished frequently. If allowed to evaporate, the subsequential rise in temperature not only renders the magnet unusable, but also damages it irreversibly. The loss of superconductivity causes the magnet to quench, and can cost more than $100,000 to replace.

It is also worth noting that replacing costly instrument parts after a catastrophic natural disaster shut down New Orleans would have greatly hindered Tulane’s research recovery. And 10 years later, NMR research at Tulane is especially relevant. One of the chemistry professors involved in the rescue efforts, Vijay Johnson, now works on developing dispersants to help the aftermath of oil spills, much like those that occurred in areas affected by Katrina. Former Earth and Environmental Science professor, Thomas Bianchi, has also worked with incorporating NMR into research on climate change in relation to global carbon flux; he now continues his research at the University of Florida. These ties make the rescue story especially timely, given that we now know that the extent of Katrina’s damage was related to global warming. Long-term solutions to climate change may not be in the near future, however by saving these expensive and delicate instruments, Tulane’s chemistry team allowed essential research to continue to move forward.