Professor Paul Thomas

  • Emeritus Professor of Analytical Science

My science base is the study of ion mobility techniques at ambient pressure combined with the development of advanced sampling methodologies and systems.

The integration of ion mobility techniques into an advanced separation science community has the potential to yield spectacular advances. I have no doubt that the next generation of separation systems technology will be small, made mostly from recyclable polymer components and will deliver analytical separations orders of magnitude faster than many in this field are currently judge to be feasible. Such advances are likely to be through exploiting electrical fields in the gas phase.

Research areas

Volatile Organic Compounds: a briefing and introduction

Volatile organic compounds (VOC) are a hugely important and fascinating area of science. From our first moments of life as we bond with our mother, and through childhood we associate smells with the familiar and comforting surroundings of home and family. Let’s take a moment to recall with pleasure our first encounters with the heady smell of a lover’s perfume and then to wonder about the secret and subtle messages conveyed to and from us by VOC.

At the other end of life as our body’s biochemistry changes through the onset of disease and general ageing, our profile of volatile organic compounds changes, giving rise to chemical markers of disease and distress within us. In fact in death itself we find some of our strongest reactions to smell, for the biogenic amines associated with decay provoke physical revulsion in most of us, indeed to the point of nausea for many. We are most intimately bound up in VOC, from birth to death and all points between the study of volatile organic compounds has much to tell us about the human condition.

Volatile organic compounds are strongly associated with environmental pollution. Indeed the first global treaty on pollution was concerned with some of the most volatile of volatile organic compounds, CFCs. Photochemical smog arises from volatile organic compounds pollution of the atmosphere, and respiratory disease and asthma are of concern to many of us. Indeed many tens of thousands of people die prematurely each year in the UK and many more suffer because of air pollution. Across the world the figure is frighteningly large.

With each breath we take we are inhaling a mixture of poisons associated with a wide range of human activities, but dominated by emissions from motor vehicles. Do you know what the levels of formaldehyde, benzene and butadiene are in your air? Formaldehyde provokes acute respiratory distress in some, it’s also a carcinogen, as is benzene, and butadiene does your vital organs no favours. The contamination of soils and water by volatile organic compounds is important too, particularly as we seek to exploit “brown-field” sites for human habitation. Understanding environmental pollution, and protecting ourselves from excessive pollution need highly reliable measurement systems. The epidemeology of respiratory disease also needs high quality data about the type and extent of individual human subjects’ exposures to pollutants.

Sad to say, in warfare VOC are the basis of chemical weapons. Mixtures of VOC have been developed to burn our skin, blind us, and damage our lungs. Awful as mustard agents are, for that is what these weapons are known as, for many the thought of nerve-agents is more frightening, with minute quantities of these materials capable of killing us in a terrible manner. A different form of conflict invokes images of sniffer dogs seeking out drugs and explosives. A huge research effort across the world is seeking to establish the fastest, most sensitive and most affordable ways of detecting the “black-sheep” of the VOC family: chemical warfare agents, illegal narcotics and hidden explosives. Indeed the ability to undertake reliable ultra-trace VOC determinations is a primary requirement for any forensic service.

Love them or hate them, we can’t get by without volatile organic compounds. Everything we use, eat and drink depends upon the use of these chemicals. We need them and have to control their release to safeguard the health of workforces, protect the environment and assure the quality of the products and processes on which we rely.