#28 from R&D Innovator Volume 2, Number 3          March 1993

A New Analytical Device Meets Old-Line Resistance
by Norman Haber

Mr. Haber is President of Haber, Inc., of Towaco, N.J., which manufactures a patented analytical chemistry device using electromolecular propulsion.

If you want to sell an invention, I'd suggest scratching away at the leading edge of established science, rather than making a quantum leap.  That kind of development causes trouble for experts who have an investment in the status quo. 

This is my sad conclusion after almost 30 years investigating a newly discovered electrochemical phenomenon—charge-transfer—and its application in a technique called electromolecular propulsion.  EMP, as I've called it (that's one benefit of being first—you get to invent names) is now being put to work in all sorts of analytical chemical applications.

Most of my problems originated with "expert" opinions that EMP is merely a version of electrophoresis, the ubiquitous lab technique in which proteins or other molecules are separated based on their net charges.

Yet it is exactly the difference between EMP and electrophoresis that gives EMP the ability to work with far more chemicals—in orders of magnitude less time.  Some EMP analyses are performed in seconds, others in minutes.  Even after 45 years of commercial improvements, electrophoresis is relatively slow—a factor which introduces delays as well as inaccuracies.

In fact, it was my quest to get rid of some of these errors that put me in this particular "invention business" in the first place.  During the early 1960s, I was using electrophoresis to investigate the glycoproteins in saliva.  At the time, I'd already received a Master's in physiology and biological science from Hunter College.  I'd begun a doctorate in biochemistry, but as this was all night school, I had to give it up. 

At any rate, my predecessors at the biochemistry lab had spent seven years trying to get consistent results from electrophoresis.  We were running each analysis for 17 hours, and when we came in the next day, sometimes we'd find uniform results, sometimes inexplicable ones.

I began wondering whether overnight temperature fluctuations were responsible, and my tests markedly improved when I ran them at a stable temperature.  I developed a method to standardize the process by, among other things, controlling long-term temperature changes. 

Does Anyone Understand?

If the electrophoresis "experts" didn't understand that such temperature variations would affect results, I began wondering how completely they understood electrophoresis in general.  So I reviewed the literature and noticed a number of obscure, unexplained phenomena.  I realized that this increasingly popular tool of biochemistry was really not the last word in the field of electrokinetics.

About this time, I held a research position in a lab that was separating proteins by electrophoresis. Electrophoresis relies upon the use of an electric field to propel molecules of an analyte across the substrate that supports them.  I reasoned that if the external resistance were very large compared to the internal resistance of the substrate and associated solutions, any change of internal resistance would be minute in proportion to the overall resistance in the circuit, and hence not skew the results.  So I modified the external electrical resistance of the circuitry and produced much more uniform results.

When the chair of my department learned that I'd finally stabilized the problem that had plagued the institute for years, he told me he "didn't like my approach," even though I'd solved the reproducibility problem. 

I returned to the literature and found a reference in an obscure journal to a fellow in India who had modified electrophoresis just as I had.  That gave me additional justification for my process modifications (as if any were needed, since we were now producing stable, reproducible results).

We finally published a paper demonstrating that insufficient control of temperature and conductivity were among the primary causes of the long and vexing reproducibility problems.

Then I asked myself what would happen if I modified the resistivity of the internal system—the analyte, solvent and substrate.  I thought that the right materials might further minimize the evaporation problem in electrophoresis.  I saw some peculiar effects by varying the chemistry within the analytical cell.  Sometimes nothing would happen.  Sometimes I'd see substantially accelerated movement.

This was my clue that something new was taking place. 

But then I left that job, and only returned to exploring this peculiar effect four years later, through a desire to stay active in science.  By now, I was operating my own business, inventing and building scientific equipment in Manhattan, and I had no bosses to dampen my enthusiasm.

It was at this time that the problem opened up like a flower.  It wasn't that I was really understanding EMP, because I didn't have a theoretical base for that.  But operationally, I began to learn how to use the technique.  I filed a U.S. patent in 1970—and then my troubles really began.

The examiners seemed to think all I had was an obvious improvement on electrophoresis.  To get a patent it has to be non-obvious.   After spending almost all of my money on patent attorneys, my first claims were granted in 1976, and finally the balance of them in 1979. 

By now, I've designed and built numerous types of devices based on EMP.  In November, 1992, Genetic Engineering News featured a long and positive article on EMP. 

We've certainly had credibility problems, but they've been substantially reduced.  In 1982, for example, I published EMP results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  The manuscript was sponsored by the well-known Rockefeller University biochemist Rollin Hotchkiss.

My company has just started selling a 15 kV machine, and we've seen considerable U.S. and international interest in it.  My sales pitch for the machine is simple:  You can't do modern biomedical research without electrophoresis, especially for complex systems, and here's a technique that makes electrophoresis look like a slow boat to China! 

There will always be diehards who doubt that anything remains to be discovered, and I've certainly seen scientists respond in a bizarre manner.  One said, "I see it, but I don't believe it."  No one has seen molecules move with this kind of velocity. 

Nevertheless, when people see my device working, they generally tend to believe it.  Not all scientists have blinders.  In general, observation comes before theory, not the reverse.

I've taken solace by reading how other inventors and scientists have been mocked and ignored by the establishment.  Madame Curie, for example, couldn't get a job in the university, even after discovering radium.

I don't claim we fully understand the theoretical basis for the principle of EMP, which baffles laboratory specialists (who tend to be practitioners rather than theoreticians).

I'm convinced that EMP is a vital analytical tool—one that can work with polar (ionic) and covalent substances alike (in contrast to electrophoresis, which is limited to polar materials).  It sets up faster, and can resolve better and more rapidly, than electrophoresis. 

Perhaps more important for the long term, since EMP appears to rest not on covalent or ionic bonding, but on little-explored "charge transfer" bonding, I expect that it will increase understanding across the field of chemistry.   


What lesson do I draw from all this?  From studying the history of science, it seems apparent that EMP has all the characteristics of an advanced development:  People initially responded by rejection.  Of course, poor ideas and products also are routinely rejected.  The challenge is to be convincing that a valuable idea has value.

The more radical the development, the more likely you are to be pecked to death by the experts.  Experts, I'm afraid, are usually experts in what's already been discovered.  It's very disturbing to them when their conventional wisdom is overturned.

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