The Origins of Trione

By Mike Gottschalk

Michael Pickering got the idea for Trione on his first day as a research chemist at Durrum Instruments back in 1976. While they were showing him their Amino Acid analysis instrument they opened the refrigerator to reveal the eluents and reagents in their reservoirs. One solution was red. He asked, “What’s the red stuff?” The reply was that it was the ninhydrin reagent. He asked, “Why is it red, ninhydrin isn’t red!” The answer was no one knew. He said, show me the instrument later, take me to documents, “I want to see the formula for the ninhydrin.” Seeing the formula reveal that Stan Moore’s recipe included Dimethylsulfoxide (DMSO) as the essential water miscible organic solvent. While DMSO is a great solvent, it’s also reactive, and responsible for the secondary reactions that lead to the background red color.

Before join Durrum Instruments Michael had followed the work of George Olah in Carbonium ion chemistry. He’s the guy who developed “magic acid” which could protonate methane to make CH5+. His solvent of choice was sulfolane, a water miscible, non-reactive organic solvent.

The idea was born. However, Durrum Instruments had no interest in making consumables. The company where he next worked was Spectra Physics which also had no interest in making consumables. But on his starting interview with personal he was required to list his ideas that he thought were patentable. Number one was Trione.

Early on, he enlisted the help of Bertum Russel, a chemistry patent attorney to get the patent for Trione. Bertum’s conditions were “If you think you’re going to make money by licensing this I won’t waste your money, but if you are going to make it, I’ll get you a patent.”

That same year, Michael contacted Stan Moore at Rockefeller University to get his assessment after using Trione. Afterall, what better way to start a business than to have the endorsement of one of the researchers who developed the original ninhydrin. Stan said, “You should do well with this but I have post-docs making ninhydrin for me every day so I won’t need to buy it.”

Undeterred, Michael gave seminars and workshops thought the analytical community and soon acceptance by the analytical chemists made Trione the best in class ninhydrin for Amino Acid analysis it is today.