Mass spectrometry (or mass spec) is an analytical chemistry technique that helps identify the amount and type of chemicals present in a sample by measuring the mass-to-charge ratio and abundance of gas-phase ions.

As standard, mass specs have 3 components – a component to convert sample from liquid to gaseous form. Then a component to ionise the sample (hit with high energy to turn to positive or negative ions), then the component to detect quantities of each ion (peaks of each ion seen).

Instead of using a needle to aspirate and spray the samples as with standard mass specs, the acoustic mass spec sends a sonic pulse through liquid creating a ‘mountain of liquid on the surface’. For compound handling, a 2.5 nanoLitre droplet is generated and fired from the liquid surface. For acoustic MS we send a second pulse through the mountain of liquid and this explodes the 2.5nL droplet into hundreds of femtoLitre droplets. In effect sending a tornado of droplets through a charged field to generate a stream of ionised particles into the mass spectrometer.


Allows us to generate data at a rate of 10,000 data points per hour.


The acoustics fire at 500Hz frequency (500 times per second) – that means we fire in 500 bursts of droplets every second.


For some analytes, we only need ~160 droplet bursts from a sample to generate enough ions – delivering samples to the mass spec at a rate of 3 per second.

A scientist's perspective

Jonathan Wingfield Principal Scientist, Discovery Sciences

Why did AstraZeneca invest in this equipment?

When you see the droplets flying and you see the science behind it – it’s astonishingly cool. It’s revolutionary. It allows us to work at very high throughput and with very small sample volumes – we only need 2µl of sample. Using this screening system we can screen more compounds or more targets for the same cost. For some assays we could reduce the cost of High Throughput Screening by 80%.

What was AstraZeneca's role in its development?

AstraZeneca has brought together a world leading supplier of MS technology (Waters) and the global leader in acoustic droplet ejection technology (Labcyte) to deliver this revolutionary platform. It required the vision of AZ’s scientific leaders to recognise the potential of this system. We took the idea to the partners, suggesting that it is possible to use acoustics in a different way in mass spectrometry. Being open about the work we are doing has shown the wider scientific community that AstraZeneca is prepared to invest in ground-breaking science, we are not just making a small change in mass spectrometry, but we are leading a potential revolution in mass spectrometry screening. As with any novel area of research this project carries an element of risk, again our openness shows that AZ is prepared to take scientific risks. We’re engaging the broader scientific community early in the process, and delivering real benefit to the community overall.

What is the reaction within the research community?

The acoustic mass spec platform won the 2015 Innovation Award from the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening. This is awarded to the podium presentation at the annual conference that shows the most innovation and impact in screening. AZ is the first non-US based company to receive this award. The webcast of the podium presentation was made available to members after the meeting, and the society received so many requests to access this presentation that they made it free to non-members for a period, which is unprecedented. Subsequently, the society has decided to make the presentation available for free to the science community for 2 years. We have also had a paper about the platform accepted in a peer-reviewed journal (Journal of Laboratory Automation).