Gas Chromatography – Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS)

Gas chromatography – mass spectrometry (GC-MS) combines the features of gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to identify different substances within a test sample.

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Gas Chromatography – Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS)


Gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) is an analytical method that combines the features of gas-chromatography and mass spectrometry to identify different substances within a test sample. Applications of GC-MS include drug detection, fire investigation, environmental analysis, explosives investigation, and identification of unknown samples, including that of material samples obtained from planet Mars during probe missions as early as the 1970s. GC-MS can also be used in airport security to detect substances in luggage or on human beings. Additionally, it can identify trace elements in materials that were previously thought to have disintegrated beyond identification.


GC-MS has been widely heralded as a “gold standard” for forensic substance identification because it is used to perform a specific test. A specific test positively identifies the actual presence of a particular substance in a given sample. A non-specific test merely indicates that a substance falls into a category of substances. Although a non-specific test could statistically suggest the identity of the substance, this could lead to false positive identification.


The GC-MS is composed of two major building blocks: the gas chromatograph and the mass spectrometer. The gas chromatograph utilizes a capillary column which depends on the column’s dimensions (length, diameter, film thickness) as well as the phase properties (e.g. 5% phenyl polysiloxane). The difference in the chemical properties between different molecules in a mixture and their relative affinity for the stationary phase of the column will promote separation of the molecules as the sample travels the length of the column. The molecules are retained by the column and then elute (come off) from the column at different times (called the retention time), and this allows the mass spectrometer downstream to capture, ionize, accelerate, deflect, and detect the ionized molecules separately. The mass spectrometer does this by breaking each molecule into ionized fragments and detecting these fragments using their mass-to-charge ratio.


These two components, used together, allow a much finer degree of substance identification than either unit used separately. It is not possible to make an accurate identification of a particular molecule by gas chromatography or mass spectrometry alone. The mass spectrometry process normally requires a very pure sample while gas chromatography using a traditional detector (e.g. Flame ionization detector) cannot differentiate between multiple molecules that happen to take the same amount of time to travel through the column (i.e. have the same retention time), which results in two or more molecules that co-elute. Sometimes two different molecules can also have a similar pattern of ionized fragments in a mass spectrometer (mass spectrum). Combining the two processes reduces the possibility of error, as it is extremely unlikely that two different molecules will behave in the same way in both a gas chromatograph and a mass spectrometer. Therefore, when an identifying mass spectrum appears at a characteristic retention time in a GC-MS analysis, it typically increases certainty that the analyte of interest is in the sample.


For the analysis of volatile compounds, a purge and trap (P&T) concentrator system may be used to introduce samples. The target analytes are extracted and mixed with water and introduced into an airtight chamber. An inert gas such as Nitrogen (N2) is bubbled through the water; this is known as purging. The volatile compounds move into the headspace above the water and are drawn along a pressure gradient (caused by the introduction of the purge gas) out of the chamber. The volatile compounds are drawn along a heated line onto a ‘trap’. The trap is a column of adsorbent material at ambient temperature that holds the compounds by returning them to the liquid phase. The trap is then heated and the sample compounds are introduced to the GC-MS column via a volatiles interface, which is a split inlet system. P&T GC-MS is particularly suited to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and BTEX compounds (aromatic compounds associated with petroleum).

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Wikipedia: Gas Chromatography – Mass Spectrometry


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