Waters Corporation: Fifty Years of Innovation in Analysis and Purification

A publicity photo for Waters Associates organic synthesis marketing program taken in Robert Burns Woodward's chromatography lab, 1973. Pictured are (from left to right) Helmut Hamburger, Josef F. K. Huber, James Waters, and Woodward, in front of the ALC-100 Analytical Liquid Chromatograph at right.

A publicity photo for Waters Associates organic synthesis marketing program taken in Robert Burns Woodward's chromatography lab, 1973. Pictured are (from left to right) Helmut Hamburger, Josef F. K. Huber, James Waters, and Woodward, in front of the ALC-100 Analytical Liquid Chromatograph at right.

The Next Generation of Innovation

Although his company’s reputation was built on dedication to making customers successful, Waters and his team recognized that their LC systems used many components made by other companies. They foresaw the importance of becoming self-reliant if they were to deliver state-of-the-art technology and continue as a market leader. Over time, each component of an LC system—pump, injector, detector, column, fittings, stationary and mobile phases—was rethought and redesigned. A commitment to materials science began when Styragel polymer technology was used to create Porapak packings for gas chromatography columns, and a 1969 collaboration with István Halász in Saarbrücken led to the development of Durapak— the first commercial bonded-silica phases for gas chromatography and liquid chromatography— and a new standard for efficiency: Corasil, the first pellicular silica HPLC packings.

Waters Associates introduced the first dual-reciprocating piston, 6000-psi pump for HPLC, the M6000, in 1972, developed by R&D director and engineer Burleigh Hutchins and a craftsman and machinist named Louis Abrahams. This precision-volume solvent-delivery device used noncircular gears, a step motor, and feedback control circuitry to drive small-diameter parallel plungers sequentially for nearly pulseless flow. When the M6000 hit the market it was considered revolutionary; it proved so reliable that many continued to be used for decades. The M6000 was to be the last R&D project that Waters would oversee, and it inspired a succession of innovations destined to alter the HPLC landscape forever. Competitors soon retired pressurized vessels and other primitive pumping means and sought to imitate the wildly successful M6000. Cottage industries sprang up to supply replacement parts. All this activity spurred rapid acceptance of HPLC in labs worldwide and accelerated the growth of the nascent HPLC industry.

The first 6000-psi compatible septum-less high-pressure injector for HPLC, the Model U6K, with its novel valve and fluid circuit technology, soon followed. The U6K and the M6000 had been developed in parallel with another landmark chemistry project, led by Richard Vivilecchia, to create the first commercial small-particle (10-µm) packing materials for HPLC. These were µPorasil silica and the first monofunctionally bonded silica, µBondapak C18, developed by using a unique, proprietary homemade silane. Columns packed with the latter, introduced in its present form in 1974, became the best-selling columns in history.

The first generation of HPLC users were frustrated by poor-quality solvents. In the late 1960s a Waters Associates applications chemist, William Dark, worked with Malinckrodt to stabilize chloroform with nonpolar amylenes rather than ethanol so as not to wreak havoc on retention-time reproducibility in normal-phase separations. This success led to the development of other HPLC-grade solvents. Waters Associates itself entered the solvent business for a few years in the late 1970s, during which time it developed specifications and analytical protocols that led to major improvements in the quality of methanol, acetonitrile, tetrahydrofuran, and other key mobile phase components, especially water. When Waters Associates exited the solvent business, it shared all its test procedures and demanding requirements with the industry, thereby creating a competitive environment from which users ultimately derived significant quality and performance benefits.

In 1977, commissioned to find “new, faster, more convenient ways to do traditional sample preparation operations,” I teamed with my colleagues, Waters Associates researchers Vivilecchia and David Lorenz, to invent the Sep-Pak cartridge by using triaxial bed compression and hermetically sealed individual packaging to maintain bed integrity, performance uniformity, and adsorbent activity. Three months later, in January 1978, Waters Associates shipped the first commercial, disposable, miniature silica-based adsorbent liquid chromatographic columns for sample enrichment and purification via solid-phase extraction (SPE). Almost three years passed before a competitive product came to market. Explosive growth followed in the application of SPE to a full spectrum of sample preparation problems in every lab around the globe. Thirty years later SPE is still growing rapidly and stands as a predominant technique for removing interfering substances in samples prior to analysis.