Sample Prep for Cannabis Made Easier

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Columns | <b>Cannabis Voices</b>

In this interview, Jeffrey Williams the CEO of Exum Instruments discusses the details of how laser ablation laser ionization-time of flight-mass spectrometer (LALI-TOF-MS) is set to solve some of the many of the issues involved in sample preparation for the cannabis industry.

In most analytical chemistry laboratories, sample preparation can be a bottleneck to quick analyses. Here, Jeffrey Williams the CEO of Exum Instruments discusses how laser ablation laser ionization-time of flight-mass spectrometer (LALI-TOF-MS) is set to solve many of the issues involved in sample preparation for the cannabis industry and more.

How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?

Jeffrey Williams: Cannabis actually wasn’t on our radar until we launched the Massbox at our first conference: Pittcon 2020. At the conference we had a lot of people asking if we could analyze dry flower or other solid cannabis products. The reason the cannabis industry had interest in our tool was that we could remove any need for wet, sample prep processes and procedures that created barriers to successful heavy metal characterization. Many companies and distributors are trying to get ahead of the inevitable regulation coming to the industry, especially in the light of the numerous lawsuits centered around the cannabidiol (CBD) industry. The Massbox removes many of the previous barriers such as cost, difficulty, size, and speed of solid sample characterization to start elevating the entire cannabis industry.

Since the conference we have established a number of partnerships in the cannabis space and are really excited to bring fast, easy, and quantifiable trace element and contamination analysis to the industry to keep consumers safe and drive increased cannabis revenues.

How does your degree in cosmochemistry help in your cannabis research?


Williams: Honestly, it wasn’t the specific cosmochemistry of what I was studying, but more so being an analytical chemist. I was expected to run samples across the gauntlet of characterization systems and all of which were out of date in both technology and user experience. The tools presented obstacle after obstacle and when I considered what this experience would be like in industry and the amount of revenue being lost, I knew I had a business case for a better solid sample characterization technique. I ended up stopping my PhD, started building the Massbox, and the reception across the cannabis industry and many others is echoing my experiences and a deep desire to have fast, seamless solid sample characterization available. Thus, Exum stands on the foundation of “Science Simplified.”

In a recent article in Spectroscopy (1), you discussed a laser ablation laser ionization-time of flight-mass spectrometer (LALI-TOF-MS). Can you tell us more about that instrument and how it works? What are the basic principles of LALI-TOF-MS? 

Williams: LALI utilizes two lasers in a vacuum system. The first laser is the ablation or desorption laser that removes material in the form of a small spot (1–250 µm) and creates a “cloud” of neutral particles above the sample surface. Subsequently a second laser is fired orthogonally to interact with this cloud, remove electrons and thus create ions. With ions formed, the Massbox can now capture, focus, and measure the constituent components whether they are the inorganic elements or organic compounds. This analysis is done with a time of flight mass spectrometer, which allows the ions to be separated by mass and collect a full mass spectrum at every laser pulse (which occurs at 50 pulses per second).

What advantages does this instrument offer to the cannabis industry?

Williams: The largest advantage to cannabis is the ease of sample preparation and removal of wet chemical techniques, speed of analysis, and painless quantification. Sample preparations is as easy as grind your material (that is, cannabis flower or other plant material) and press it into a pellet. The pellets can be loaded many at a time (16 1/2” samples) and analyzed in under 5 min. Quantification is then automatically done for the user from a standard file that was previously analyzed and calibrated. This greatly improves the throughput for both laboratories and producers while reducing operational costs.

What other application areas do you see LALI-TOF-MS being a good fit for?

Williams: We are exploring a lot of application markets outside of cannabis. This includes metals and material analysis, gems and minerals, silicon manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, and much more. If you have a solid material that you want to know what it is made of, the Massbox is your tool. This is increasingly important in industries with high quality control requirements while also requiring rapid analysis.

What are the next steps in your research or development of new products?

Williams: Our focus is now shifting from building the most robust hardware we can to creating the best user experience for our customers. We joke that we want to be the Tesla of analytical instruments. Every month or so you will come into your laboratory and we will have upgraded your software making your Massbox easier to use and more powerful. We are highly engaged with our customers and listen to what features we need to add. In short, the Massbox is only going to be getting better from here.


R. Thomas, J. Williams, and J. Putnam, Spectroscopy 35(5), 9-16 (2020).