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Center Innovation Fund: ARC CIF

To the Plumes of Enceladus: Developing Miniature Electrochromatographic Monolithic Columns for the In Situ Analysis of Extraterrestrial Organic Molecules and Biomarkers

Completed Technology Project

Project Introduction

To the Plumes of Enceladus: Developing Miniature Electrochromatographic Monolithic Columns for the In Situ Analysis of Extraterrestrial Organic Molecules and Biomarkers

The in situ detection of organic molecules from extraterrestrial environments is both a key step towards understanding the variety and distribution of the building blocks of life in space as well as a potential biosignature in locations such as the plumes of Enceladus. Such molecules also could provide resources for human missions.

Gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) has been a successful organic detection system on Mars missions from Viking to Curiosity, and the Rosetta mission. Unfortunately, GC can only detect volatile and thermally stable molecules. Thus, few or none of the organic terrestrial biomarkers, in their unadulterated state, are compatible with GC. Although chemical derivatization prior to GC may allow the analysis of some refractory molecules (the nonvolatile ones), such a preparative approach is not suited to large molecular weight biomarkers such as polypeptides and oligonucleotides, which are the hallmark of life on Earth. Likewise, MS requires small molecules. Here we team with the inventors of capillary electrochromatographic monolithic columns from the University Paris-Est Créteil (UPEC) to apply this technique to the analysis of molecules of exobiological interest with broad chemical composition and molecular weight. The novelty of the project rests on the combination of an electrophoretic method with monolithic stationary phases. Electrophoresis will allow the highly efficient migration of solutes without the need of a bulky pump while monoliths will provide versatile separation.

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