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Cost-Effective Chromatography

Cost-Effective Chromatography

Cost-Effective Chromatography Techniques

Andrew Wang
Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology

            Chromatography experiments are highly valued, both in classrooms and in real-life applications.  In education, it allows for visual demonstrations of concepts taught in class (Dias & Ferreira, 2014).  In medicine, biochemistry, and organic chemistry, chromatography is vital in separating and analyzing the chemical make-up of various compounds.  The applications span various fields and can be used to check if medicines have the same active ingredient composition as advertised, find the basic chemical build of complex biomolecules, and even distinguish antibacterial components found in honey (Karasawa, Haraya, Okubo, & Arakawa, 2017).  However, as chromatographic techniques and materials have advanced over the years, the costs associated with the process have also skyrocketed (Kimbrough, 1992).  Today, the most high-tech chromatography systems can cost upwards of $30,000 and a single column component of these systems can cost nearly $1000 on its own (“Thermo Scientific™”, n.d.). These systems include large, bulky machinery, expensive sensors, and delicate internal mechanisms.  In addition to the base cost of these systems, the operation and maintenance can also be financially taxing.

            However, there have been several attempts to combat the rising costs of chromatography.  Researchers have made strides in creating cost-effective and effective chromatography techniques.  Expensive silica and aluminum particles can be replaced with easily obtained plant starches and baking soda at a fraction of the cost.  Pricy chemicals can be replaced with nail polish removers and paint thinners.  Kimbrough pioneered this “supermarket column” in 1992, but it is still being refined (Dias & Ferreira, 2014).  These columns are primarily used for the analysis of plant extracts.  They have a high and consistent rate of success, but faster and greater band separations are still being tested.  These cheap columns may make chemical education more accessible and prevalent, especially in areas with less funding.

            The benefits of cheap and effective chromatography extend further than simply increased classroom accessibility.  Chromatography is a vital part of medicinal and pharmaceutical chemistry.  In analyzing the building blocks of larger molecules, chemists gain valuable insight on some of the properties mechanisms of the molecules.  This allows medicine researchers to perform what is “the main objective of medicinal chemistry,” which is to “identify new compounds which can be used as the active principle of effective and safe medicines” (Timmerman, 2013, p. 3).  Greater understanding of these molecules allows medicinal chemists to obtain useful extracts that can then be developed into medicines. 

            One of group of molecules of interest to scientists are phytochemicals.  Antioxidants, plant oils, and flavonoids are just a few of the vast array of phytochemicals that continue to intrigue health and medicinal researchers.  One study attempted to identify several plant molecules to be used to combat cardiovascular diseases.  More natural solutions to heart disease have gained interest due to the lower costs and comparatively lower risks in comparison to synthetic alternatives.  Garlic, teas, nuts, and plant oils have all been noted for their hypolipidemic properties – their ability to prevent fat and lipid build-up, especially in the arteries.  Apocynin, phenolic acids, and polyphenols may also be possible natural options to combat hypertension (Liwa, Barton, Cole, & Nwokocha, 2017).

            In addition to the capability of identifying new medicinal molecules, chromatography also proves useful in assessing existing medicines.  Every year, dozens of drugs are recalled due to impurities and unsafe or unlisted chemicals.  Over forty Class I drug recalls (drugs/products with the highest risk of adverse health effects) occurred in 2016 in the US alone (Drug Recalls, Food & Drug Administration [FDA], 2017).  Drug recalls pose not only a risk to the consumers, but also incur major costs to drug producers.  With the emergence of an industrialized and globalized pharmaceutical industry, the need for better product regulation, manufacturing improvements, and quality control has become more pressing.  A high volume of recalls are attributed with manufacturing issues or poor understanding of the complete effects of a molecule (Fisher et al., 2016).  A cheap and effective analytical tool could be used by drug manufacturers in order to check the quality of their products before sending them out into the market.

            Cheap and effective chromatography may provide a solution.  Plant pigments can easily be extracted using the supermarket column.  Chlorophylls, carotenes, carotenoids, and flavonoids can all be separated and analyzed using these columns.  Further study of plant molecules is promising in multiple fields, including medicine, nutrition, and biology.  For example, studies on Traditional Chinese medicines, which have long been held in a light of skepticism, have increased in recent years, with many emerging analytical techniques and studies leading to promising effects of these plant-based medicines (Jin, Liu, Guo, Wang, Zhang, Wang, Liang, 2016).  A cheap analytical technique that proves effective for the analysis of complex plant substituents would prove invaluable to furthering the breadth and availability of research in plants and plant based medicines.  In addition, cost-effective and simple plant molecule analysis could be made more accessible to for educational purposes.


Dias, A. M., & Ferreira, M. L. S. (2014). “Supermarket Column Chromatography of Leaf Pigments” Revisited: Simple and Ecofriendly Separation of Plant Carotenoids, Chlorophylls, and Flavonoids from Green and Red Leaves. Journal of Chemical Education, 92(1), 189-192. http://dx.doi.org/10.1021/ed500299j

Drug Recalls. (2017, January 15). Retrieved January 18, 2017, from U.S. Food and Drug Administration website: http://www.fda.gov/drugs/drugsafety/DrugRecalls/

Fisher, A. C., Lee, S. L., Harris, D. P., Buhse, L., Kozlowski, S., Yu, L., . . . Woodcock, J. (2016). Advancing pharmaceutical quality: An overview of science and research in the U.S. FDA’s Office of Pharmaceutical Quality. International Journal of Pharmaceutics, 515(1-2), 390-402. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpharm.2016.10.038

Jin, H., Liu, Y., Guo, Z., Wang, J., Zhang, X., Wang, C., & Liang, X. (2016). Recent development in liquid chromatography stationary phases for separation of Traditional Chinese Medicine components. Journal of Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Analysis, 130, 336-346. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jpba.2016.06.008

Karasawa, K., Haraya, S., Okubo, S., & Arakawa, H. (2017). Novel assay of antibacterial components in manuka honey using lucigenin-chemiluminescence-HPLC. Analytica Chimica Acta, 954, 151-158. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.aca.2016.12.004

Kimbrough, D. R. (1992). Supermarket Column Chromatography of Leaf Pigments. Journal of Chemical Education, 69(12), 987-988. http://dx.doi.org/10.1021/ed069p987

Liwa, A. C., Barton, E. N., Cole, W. C., & Nwokocha, C. R. (2017). Bioactive Plant Molecules, Sources and Mechanism of Action in the Treatment of Cardiovascular Disease. Pharmacognosy, 315-336. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-802104-0.00015-9

Thermo Scientific™ PepSwift™ Monolithic Capillary LC Columns. (n.d.).

Timmerman, H. (2013). Medicinal and pharmaceutical chemistry. Reference Module in Chemistry, Molecular Sciences and Chemical Engineering. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-409547-2.05394-4

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