SPE uses the affinity of solutes dissolved or suspended in a liquid (known as the mobile phase) for a solid through which the sample is passed (known as the stationary phase) to separate a mixture into desired and undesired components. The result is that either the desired analytes of interest or undesired impurities in the sample are retained on the stationary phase. The portion that passes through the stationary phase is collected or discarded, depending on whether it contains the desired analytes or undesired impurities. If the portion retained on the stationary phase includes the desired analytes, they can then be removed from the stationary phase for collection in an additional step, in which the stationary phase is rinsed with an appropriate eluent.
The stationary phase comes in the form of a packed syringe-shaped cartridge, a 96 well plate or a 47- or 90-mm flat disk, which can be mounted on a commercially available extraction manifold. The manifold allows many samples to be processed simultaneously. A typical cartridge SPE manifold can accommodate up to 24 cartridges, while a typical disk SPE manifold can accommodate 6 disks. Most SPE manifolds are equipped with a vacuum port. Application of vacuum speeds up the extraction process by pulling the liquid sample through the stationary phase. The analytes are collected in sample tubes inside or below the manifold after they pass through the stationary phase.
Solid phase extraction cartridges and disks are available with a variety of stationary phases, each of which can separate analytes according to different chemical properties. Most stationary phases are based on silica that has been bonded to a specific functional group. Some of these functional groups include hydrocarbon chains of variable length (for reversed phase SPE), quaternary ammonium or amino groups (for anion exchange), and sulfonic acid or carboxyl groups (for cation exchange).
A typical solid phase extraction involves four basic steps. First, the cartridge is equilibrated with a non-polar solvent or slightly polar, which wets the surface and penetrates the bonded phase. Then water, or buffer of the same composition as the sample, is typically washed through the column to wet the silica surface. The sample is then added to the cartridge. As the sample passes through the stationary phase, the analytes in the sample will interact and retain on the sorbent while the solvent, salts, and other impurities pass through the cartridge. After the sample is loaded, the cartridge is washed with buffer or solvent to remove further impurities. Then, the analyte is eluted with a non-polar solvent or a buffer of the appropriate pH.
A stationary phase of polar functionally bonded silicas with short carbons chains frequently makes up the solid phase. This stationary phase will adsorb polar molecules which can be collected with a more polar solvent.
A stationary phase of silicon with carbon chains is commonly used. Relying on mainly non-polar, hydrophobic interactions, only non-polar or very weakly polar compounds will adsorb to the surface.