Eric Hoffman

Eric Hoffman

eric hoffman photo-cropped

Dr. Eric Laurence Hoffman, President and Founder of Actlabs 

It is with great sadness that we inform the AAG community that Dr. Eric Laurence Hoffman, Ph.D, P.Geo, President and founder of Activation Laboratories Ltd. (Actlabs) passed away on July 10, 2015.



Eric began his working career in industry in 1978 as an NRC Postdoctoral Industrial Fellow commercializing the nickel sulphide fire assay/INAA method for low level platinum group elements he developed for his PhD thesis. He was instrumental in forming a commercial INAA partnership with McMaster University. This was one of the first commercial neutron activation facilities in the world, and where he developed for the exploration community applications of INAA, delayed neutron counting and prompt gamma analysis. Some of the innovations included:

• Analysis of dried humus or vegetation for gold+34 elements using large 15-30 g samples

• Analysis of silver fire assay beads for gold, platinum and palladium

• Analysis of 30 g samples of rock, soil or sediment for multielement INAA packages

• Analysis of kilogram samples for gold by INAA thus reducing the nugget effect

• Analysis of vegetation ash in conjunction with the Geological Survey of Canada

• Development of an automated delayed neutron counting system for trace to major levels of uranium; this is still one of the most effective methods to carry out total uranium analyses quickly, accurately and at low cost.

• Development of an automated prompt gamma system for determining elements such as boron, gadolinium and hydrogen.

In 1987, Eric established Activation Laboratories Ltd. (Actlabs) and began by offering INAA services. He quickly expanded to include atomic absorption and ICP/OES analyses.  In 1992 Actlabs, jointly with Bob Clark, commercialized a selective extraction Enzyme Leach, a new technology that had been developed at the USGS. This has proved to be a precise weak selective leach of soils frequently used by the mineral exploration community.

First and second generation ICP/MS units were tried by commercial labs in the early to mid 1980’s and their application in the geochemical industry was not that successful. A number of laboratories disposed of their ICP/MS units as a result of their poor stability and reliability, instead returning to the sole use of ICP/OES. Eric saw the huge potential that this instrumentation offered and in 1993 Actlabs acquired their first ICP/MS, a Perkin Elmer-Sciex Elan 5000 that was used for Enzyme Leach analyses continuously, 24 hours a day, 7 days/week. The instrument proved that this generation of ICP/MS could support a viable commercial ICP/MS operation. Experience with the Elan 5000 was sufficiently successful and Eric then acquired the first Elan 6000 in the world. After initially struggling to debug this new instrument for Sciex, the superior stability and sensitivity of this fourth generation instrument was established.  It permitted several new commercial developments including:

• Lithium metaborate/tetraborate fusion linking ICP/OES for major elements and ICP/MS for the trace elements including REE and high field strength elements

• Multielement hydrogeochemistry packages by ICP/OES and ICP/MS

• Low cost 60+ element packages by ICP/MS on aqua regia, four acid (near total) digestions and peroxide fusions

• Analysis of vegetation ash and dry tissues by ICP/MS

• Lead isotope analysis by ICP/MS

As the next stage of instrumental evolution entered the market, in 2002, Eric realized that High Resolution ICP/MS using a magnetic sector ICP/MS was a way of resolving interferences and increasing analytical sensitivity by orders of magnitude. Actlabs became the first commercial mineral laboratory in the world to acquire this instrument, a Thermo Finnegan Element 2 HR-ICP/MS.  Among the applications that were then developed were:

• Research projects to link capillary electrophoresis, high pressure liquid chromatography and ion chromatography to the HR-ICP/MS. Metal speciation was one of the targets of this research and methods for arsenic, chromium, selenium, iron, and other metals were established and commercialized.

• By 2004, new low level gold in water technology was developed using the HR-ICP/MS permitting detection down to 0.05 ppt and avoiding the major problem of adsorption of gold on the polyethylene sample containers.  This methodology was still not sufficient for PGE and a new ion exchange technology was developed for PGE in water to reduce detection levels to low ppq levels.

• This technology was used to determine low levels of platinum group elements in vegetation primarily for environmental studies trying to link catalytic converters to PGE levels in roadside vegetation.

• The HR-ICP/MS also allowed development of analyses by ion exchange to detect REE to sub ppb levels in rocks.

• Methods to determine ultralow levels of metals in water were developed for specific elements where detection levels or interferences make analyses difficult by conventional ICP/MS.

• In 2004 methods for mercury isotope determinations were developed using the HR-ICP/MS and this was extended to multicollector ICP/MS and is now being widely used by Environment Canada amongst others.

• Eric’s acquisition of a 213 nanometer New Wave laser (2004) for laser ablation linked to the HR-ICP/MS allowed development of spatial technologies for metal and isotopic evaluations; for example U/Pb Terrane Geochronology similar to that developed in Australia.

• A Geochronology department was established to determine isotope ratios and age dating.

Concurrent with all of the instrument and method development, in 1994 Eric established a Materials Testing Division at Actlabs, doing work for the automobile and aircraft industries, performing physical testing and metallurgical failure analysis.

On another front, in 1995 Actlabs purchased its first Gas Chromatograph/Mass Spectrometer (GC/MS) and began research on new innovative technologies for a number of applications based on analyses of organic species. These applications included:

• Development of a forensics division that was recognized by the ASTM committee in Criminalistics as a world research leader in the analysis of fire debris to detect residues of ignitable liquids.

• The first application of a geochemical technology utilizing semi-volatile organic compounds to oil and gas exploration.

• Soil Gas Hydrocarbon (SGH) was developed for mineral exploration.

• As a result of the determination that the SGH anomalies were microbiological in origin, a new Bioleach technology was developed.

• The customization and use of the latest instrumentation further lead to the development of the detection of Organo-Sulphur compounds (OSG) that represent the first “Pico” technology.

• New technology aimed at fingerprinting mineral deposits using DNA is currently under development.

• New research into the analysis for Petroleum Biomarkers made discoveries that included the development of more sensitive techniques for higher molecular weight organic biomarkers.

In pursuit of his fundamental interest of applying to mineral exploration technologies from other scientific disciplines, Eric continued to diversify and in 2003 he established a pharmaceutical department and again acquired state-of -the-art expertise and equipment, including a liquid chromatograph linked to a tandem mass spectrometer with a Q-trap (Applied Biosystems ABI-4000 Q Trap). This technology was used for cancer research (pancreatic cancer treatment for submission to the FDA), biomarker research and the detection of new priority pollutants, like pharmaceuticals and perchlorates in waste water. The development of this department allowed ActLabs to add a laser particle size analyzer, FTIR, differential scanning calorimeter, differential thermal/thermogravimetric analyzer (DTA/TGA), polarimetry, UV/VIS spectrophotometry and many other types of equipment. Applications of some of this equipment to geological applications are still in progress.

To round out the facilities to handle virtually any type of geological application, in more recent years new wavelength dispersive and energy dispersive XRF as well as XRD instruments were acquired. Research was successful in developing a rapid low cost XRD screening for locating mineral deposits based on mineralogy. This now permits XRD at a price point that makes mineralogical zonation studies a viable exploration tool.

New geological services were developed and included Geometallurgy and a full metallurgy department (Thunder Bay) with the acquisition of new state of the art FEG-MLA and FEG-QEMSCAN. Actlabs was the first commercial mineral lab in the world to acquire and develop this high resolution automated mineralogy technology. New corporate divisions were also established including the High Technology Agriculture division which became GLP and OMAFRA accredited and provides GLP studies of the fate of newly developed pesticides in the environment, a new NIR facility for analysis of low cost and rapid animal feeds, identification of crop pests (like soybean cys-nematodes) and possible remediation of infected soils and conventional soil analysis with plant growth specific leaches. A new biotech project using Elisa analysis progressing to multiplexing of up to 100 proteins simultaneously using laser induced Luminex methods is nearing completion and a patent will be applied for the development of a screen of biomarkers to detect muscle damage.  

A new corporate lab was developed as Actlabs Global Headquarters in Ancaster Ontario which now houses 200,000 square feet of the most modern mineral lab and analytical scientific instrumentation in the world. The design embraced Lean technology, LEED construction and included large scale robotization.

Under Eric’s ongoing guidance, Actlabs continued to Beta test equipment for most of the major analytical equipment manufacturers including Perkin Elmer, Thermo, Agilent and ESI. New generations of nitrogen based plasma ICP - the Agilent MP 4100 which runs on air (rather than argon) promises to be very useful in developing countries in places like Africa where the cost of argon is exorbitant or not available. Eric was currently trialing and helping to develop the next generation ICP/MS including the newest instruments from three manufacturers. All of these advances are aimed at providing lower detection limits, better reliability and lower cost of analyses to end users.

Eric’s vision took the company forward into areas where he perceived automation to give an advantage in quality, price to customer and turnaround time. These include a robotic lithium borate fusion process for ICP and ICP/MS; automated digestion blocks for microprocessor controlled aqua regia and 4 acid digestions so that the digestions are not operator dependent; and a robotic LOI cell. Currently, research is underway to be able to provide robotic sample preparation which is simple and reliable and overcomes the carryover problems and exceptionally high cost of existing multimillion dollar robotic cells.

In an effort to provide customers with matrix matched certified reference materials, Eric initiated a new Reference Materials Division to produce and certify reference materials. This continues to help customers improve the reliability of data originating from commercial laboratories.

Eric contributed regularly to the development of exploration technologies by  providing free or heavily discounted analyses to many research projects being undertaken by CAMIRO, CMIC, USGS, Geological Survey of Canada, and a number of universities as well as providing free analyses to help develop new certified reference materials by many organizations including CANMET, USGS, Central Geological Laboratory of Mongolia and OREAS.

Worldwide Laboratories

The business model that Eric established is substantially different from that of large multinational company competitors in that he followed the belief that complete analyses can be performed in locations close to where samples are being generated rather than in central labs halfway across the world. This allows the customer base to obtain analyses more rapidly yet still at the highest quality.

Following this philosophy, international expansion began in 1994 with the opening of a laboratory in Lima, Peru.  Rapid expansion in recent years has seen Actlabs grow to 30 labs in 12 countries with most of these facilities being full service laboratories offering a wide range of services. Internationally these include full or partial service labs in Nuuk, Greenland; Ulan Bator, Mongolia; Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; Windhoek, Namibia; Georgetown, Guyana; Medellin, Colombia; Coquimbo, Chile; Zacatecas, Mexico, and many sample preparation labs scattered around the world. Additional labs were recently opened in Africa in Cote d’Ivoire and a service partnership established in Finland. In Canada there are comprehensive labs in Stewart; Kamloops, Dryden, Thunder Bay, Geraldton, Timmins and Sudbury, Ste. Germaine Boule and Val D’Or.  Sample preparation facilities have been established in Fredericton and Goose Bay.

Another direction that Eric developed for Actlabs was the building and/or operating mine site labs include the main application and metallurgical labs at the Oyu Tolgoi Mine in Mongolia, as well as six other labs at iron ore mines, gold mines, and graphite projects in various parts of the world as a part of a new Laboratory Outsourcing Division established in the last two years.

Through Eric’s ongoing guidance Actlabs was recognized as an Innovation Leader in Canada recently when it was presented with an award by the Federal Minister of State for Science and Technology.  Finally, in addition to the wealth of innovation and services that Eric had brought to exploration, and in particular the geochemical exploration community, he somehow found time to produce more than 40 publications and academic presentations at conferences worldwide.

The above represents an updated version of the accomplishments of Eric Hoffman and Actlabs. However, it misses the true essence of the man. Truly the business model of having analyses conducted in close locations to the client which allowed for a more personalized service, was a reflection of himself.  He was always available to talk directly to clients and offer advice and suggestions to match the right analytical technique to their objectives. Using today’s rapid and widespread email communications meant that nearly every day, no matter what part of the world he happened to be in, he was always within reach of his clients.  Aside from his great pride in the achievements of his children, Michael, Robbi and Ariella, and the opportunity to guide and work alongside them with his wife Felyce; his life, his hobby, and his passion was steadfastly focused on the development, diversification and well-being of Actlabs. The aforementioned achievements were due to his tireless dedication which was recognized in receiving the 2013 Association of Applied Geochemists’ Gold Medal for Outstanding Scientific Achievement in Applied Geochemistry, an award that he was deeply proud of. The members of the AAG should know that the IAGS conferences were his most favourite to attend, not only due to their global flavour, and that they highlighted the latest direction and developments in geochemistry, but more importantly that it was an opportunity to meet and reconnect with his many colleagues and friends, that are too numerous to mention, who were highly valued and never forgotten. A large number of attendees at the most recent conference held in Tuscon, Arizona noted Eric’s absence, and asked about him. This first-ever absence was due to medical testing to try and understand the illness that has since taken his life.  His problem solving ability, knowledge, and expertise cannot be replaced, but the foundation he built in Actlabs will allow a near seamless continuance of providing high quality analytical services using the latest that science can offer.  His legacy will live on through the continued efforts of the Hoffman family and the Actlabs family of employees around the world.  It has been my privilege and pleasure to have worked and travelled alongside Dr. Eric Hoffman. It goes without saying that he will be sorely missed by all.

-Dale Sutherland