The Herculean Effort of Pioneering Chromatography Columns
Dr. Mikhail S. Tsvet (also spelled Tsvett, Tswett, Tswet, Zwet, and Cvet) is credited with discovering chromatography. In his experiments, he saw the separation of colorful plant pigments occur, and more importantly, he formulated an explanation for why it was happening. He found that he could control this process, and what’s more, he realized that it didn’t have to be limited to separating pigments.
The journey from observation to understanding to exploration must have been thrilling for the hard-working botanist. Tsvet understood that while he could separate plant pigments (the analytes) using ground-up chalk (stationary phase) and petroleum ether and ethanol (mobile phases), it might be possible to separate any number of mixtures if he could just find the right combination of stationary and mobile phases.
Throughout his career, Tsvet cataloged a list of over 100 different substances used as stationary phases in his experiments. It’s clear he understood what makes a good stationary phase and what doesn’t. While he found many unsuitable options in his exploration, the breadth of his investigation is impressive, especially considering the era and analytical science at the time.1,2
Research papers on the subject cannot catalog all of the things he tried to separate with those 100+ different stationary phases. However, it’s still inspiring to think about his perseverance and ingenuity.
Even though today we’re more focused on tiny, porous silica spheres covered in special chemistries, or ultra-thin polymer films coating long, narrow capillary tubing, it’s inspirational to think back on those earliest days of discovery. When Tsvet was in experimental mode, he packed columns with everything from elemental aluminum to egg whites to charcoal made up of blood and bone.
While the principles of chromatographic separations haven’t changed in over a hundred years, column technology has, and PerkinElmer can supply many diverse types of GC, LC, SFC, and preparative stationary phases.
- Ettre, L.S., & Sakodynskii, K.I. (1993). M.S. Tswett and the Discovery of Chromatography I: Early Work (1899-1903). Chromatographia. Vol. 35, No. 3/4, 223-231.
- Ettre, L.S., & Sakodynskii, K.I. (1993). M.S. Tswett and the Discovery of Chromatography II: Completion of the Development of Chromatography (1903-1910). Chromatographia. Vol. 35, No. 5/6, 329-338.
- In the literature you will find Dr. Tsvet also spelled Tsvett, Tswett, Tswet, Zwet, and Cvet