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2.5: Highlighting Instrumentation- Mass Spectrometry

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    Skills to Develop

    • Define the atomic mass unit and average atomic mass
    • Calculate average atomic mass and isotopic abundance
    • Define the amount unit mole and the related quantity Avogadro’s number
    • Explain the relation between mass, moles, and numbers of atoms or molecules, and perform calculations deriving these quantities from one another

    Mass Spectrometry

    The occurrence and natural abundances of isotopes can be experimentally determined using an instrument called a mass spectrometer. Mass spectrometry (MS) is widely used in chemistry, forensics, medicine, environmental science, and many other fields to analyze and help identify the substances in a sample of material. In a typical mass spectrometer (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)), the sample is vaporized and exposed to a high-energy electron beam that causes the sample’s atoms (or molecules) to become electrically charged, typically by losing one or more electrons. These cations then pass through a (variable) electric or magnetic field that deflects each cation’s path to an extent that depends on both its mass and charge (similar to how the path of a large steel ball bearing rolling past a magnet is deflected to a lesser extent that that of a small steel BB). The ions are detected, and a plot of the relative number of ions generated versus their mass-to-charge ratios (a mass spectrum) is made. The height of each vertical feature or peak in a mass spectrum is proportional to the fraction of cations with the specified mass-to-charge ratio. Since its initial use during the development of modern atomic theory, MS has evolved to become a powerful tool for chemical analysis in a wide range of applications.



    The left diagram shows how a mass spectrometer works, which is primarily a large tube that bends downward at its midpoint. The sample enters on the left side of the tube. A heater heats the sample, causing it to vaporize. The sample is also hit with a beam of electrons as it is being vaporized. Charged particles from the sample, called ions, are then accelerated and pass between two magnets. The magnetic field deflects the lightest ions most. The deflection of the ions is measured by a detector located on the right side of the tube. The graph to the right of the spectrometer shows a mass spectrum of zirconium. The relative abundance, as a percentage from 0 to 100, is graphed on the y axis, and the mass to charge ratio is graphed on the x axis. The sample contains five different isomers of zirconium. Z R 90, which has a mass to charge ratio of 90, is the most abundant isotope at about 51 percent relative abundance. Z R 91 has a mass to charge ratio of 91 and a relative abundance of about 11 percent. Z R 92 has a mass to charge ratio of 92 and a relative abundance of about 18 percent. Z R 94 has a mass to charge ratio of 94 and a relative abundance of about 18 percent. Z R 96, which has a mass to charge ratio of 96, is the least abundant zirconium isotope with a relative abundance of about 2 percent.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Analysis of zirconium in a mass spectrometer produces a mass spectrum with peaks showing the different isotopes of Zr.


    Video \(\PageIndex{1}\): Watch this video from the Royal Society for Chemistry for a brief description of the rudiments of mass spectrometry.






    2.5: Highlighting Instrumentation- Mass Spectrometry is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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