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Mass Spectrometry

Mass spectrometry is a powerfully analytical technique used to quantify known materials, identify unknown compounds within a sample, and elucidate the structure and chemical properties of different molecules.

It is used to determine the molecular weight of compounds by separating molecular ions on the basis of their mass and charge. The complete process involves the conversion of the sample into gaseous ions, with or without fragmentation, which is then characterized by their mass to charge ratios (m/z) and relative abundances.


This technique basically studies the effect of ionizing energy on molecules. It depends upon chemical reactions in the gas phase in which sample molecules are consumed during the formation of ionic and neutral species.




Technical Concept

A mass spectrometer generates multiple ions from the sample under investigation, then separates them according to their specific mass-to-charge ratio (m/z), and then records the relative abundance of each ion type.

The first step in the mass spectrometric analysis of compounds is the production of gas phase ions of the compound, basically by electron ionization. This molecular ion undergoes fragmentation. Each primary product ion derived from the molecular ion, in turn, undergoes fragmentation, and so on. The ions are separated in the mass spectrometer according to their mass-to-charge ratio, and are detected in proportion to their abundance; a mass spectrum of the molecule is thus produced. It displays the result in the form of a plot of ion abundance versus mass-to-charge ratio.


Ions provide information concerning the nature and the structure of their precursor molecule. In the spectrum of a pure compound, the molecular ion, if present, appears at the highest value of m/z (followed by ions containing heavier isotopes) and gives the molecular mass of the compound.


The instrument consists of three major components:

  • Ion Source:For producing gaseous ions from the substance being studied.
  • Analyzer:For resolving the ions into their characteristics mass components according to their mass-to-charge ratio.
  • Detector System:For detecting the ions and recording the relative abundance of each of the resolved ionic species.


In addition, a sample introduction system is necessary to admit the samples to be studied to the ion source while maintaining the high vacuum requirements (~10-6 to 10-8 mm of mercury) of the technique; and a computer is required to control the instrument, acquire and manipulate data, and compare spectra to reference libraries.





Mass spectrometry represents a powerful technique with a myriad of different applications in biology, chemistry, physics, clinical medicine, and even space exploration. It is applicable across diverse fields, including forensic toxicology, metabolomics, proteomics, pharma/biopharma, and clinical research.

Specific applications of mass spectrometry also include drug testing and discovery, food contamination detection, pesticide residue analysis, isotope ratio determination, protein identification, and carbon dating.




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