Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry (GC/MS)

Gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GC/MS) is an instrumental technique, comprising a gas chromatograph (GC) coupled to a mass spectrometer (MS), by which complex mixtures of chemicals may be separated, identfied and quantified. This makes it ideal for the analysis of the hundreds of relatively low molecular weight compounds found in environmental materials. In order for a compound to be analysed by GC/MS it must be sufficiently volatile and thermally stable. In addition, functionalised compounds may require chemical modification (derivatization), prior to analysis, to eliminate undesirable adsorption effects that would otherwise affect the quality of the data obtained. Samples are usually analyzed as organic solutions consequently materials of interest (e.g. soils, sediments, tissues etc.) need to be solvent extracted and the extract subjected to various 'wet chemical' techniques before GC/MS analysis is possible.

The sample solution is injected into the GC inlet where it is vaporized and swept onto a chromatographic column by the carrier gas (usually helium). The sample flows through the column and the compounds comprising the mixture of interest are separated by virtue of their relative interaction with the coating of the column (stationary phase) and the carrier gas (mobile phase). The latter part of the column passes through a heated transfer line and ends at the entrance to ion source (Fig. 1) where compounds eluting from the column are converted to ions.

Two potential methods exist for ion production. The most frequently used method is electron ionisation (EI) and the occasionally used alternative is chemical ionisation (CI). For EI a beam of electrons ionise the sample molecules resulting in the loss of one electron. A molecule with one electron missing is called the molecular ion and is represented by M+. (a radical cation). When the resulting peak from this ion is seen in a mass spectrum, it gives the molecular weight of the compound. Due to the large amount of energy imparted to the molecular ion it usually fragments producing further smaller ions with characteristic relative abundances that provide a 'fingerprint' for that molecular structure. This information may be then used to identify compounds of interest and help elucidate the structure of unknown components of mixtures. CI begins with the ionisation of methane (or another suitable gas), creating a radical which in turn will ionise the sample molecule to produce [M+H]+ molecular ions. CI is a less energetic way of ionising a molecule hence less fragmentation occurs with CI than with EI, hence CI yields less information about the detailed structure of the molecule, but does yield the molecular ion; sometimes the molecular ion cannot be detected using EI, hence the two methods complement one another. Once ionised a small positive is used to repel the ions out of the ionisation chamber.

The next component is a mass analyser (filter), which separates the positively charged ions according to various mass related properties depending upon the analyser used. Several types of analyser exist: quadrupoles (Fig. 2), ion traps, magnetic sector, time-of-flight, radio frequency, cyclotron resonance and focusing to name a few. The most common are quadrupoles and ion traps. After the ions are separated they enter a detector the output from which is amplified to boost the signal. The detector sends information to a computer that records all of the data produced, converts the electrical impulses into visual displays and hard copy displays. In addtion, the computer also controls the operation of the mass spectrometer.

A schematic of an ion source
Figure 1  A schematic of an ion source

A schematic of a quadrupole analyser
Figure 2  A schematic of a quadrupole analyser

Diagrams by Dr Paul Gates, School of Chemistry, University of Bristol