In analytical chemistry, atomic absorption spectroscopy is a technique for determining the concentration of a particular metal element in a sample. Atomic absorption spectroscopy can be used to analyze the concentration of over 62 different metals in a solution.
Although atomic absorption spectroscopy dates to the nineteenth century, the modern form was largely developed during the 1950s by a team of Australian chemists. They were led by Alan Walsh and worked at the CSIRO (Commonwealth Science and Industry Research Organization) Division of Chemical Physics in Melbourne, Australia.
In short, the electrons of the atoms in the atomizer can be promoted to higher orbitals for an instant by absorbing a set quantity of energy (i.e. light of a given wavelength). This amount of energy (or wavelength) is specific to a particular electron transition in a particular element, and in general, each wavelength corresponds to only one element. This gives the technique its elemental selectivity.
As the quantity of energy (the power) put into the flame is known, and the quantity remaining at the other side (at the detector) can be measured, it is possible, from Beer-Lambert law, to calculate how many of these transitions took place, and thus get a signal that is proportional to the concentration of the element being measured.
In order to analyze a sample for its atomic constituents, it has to be atomized. The sample should then be illuminated by light. The light transmitted is finally measured by a detector. In order to reduce the effect of emission from the atomizer (e.g. the black body radiation) or the environment, a spectrometer is normally used between the atomizer and the detector.
When a flame is used, it arranged so that it is laterally long (usually ) and not deep. The height of the flame above the burner head can be controlled by adjusting the flow of the fuel mixture. A beam of light passes through this flame at its longest axis (the lateral axis) and hits a detector.
A liquid sample is normally turned into an atomic gas in three steps:
The light source chosen has a spectral width narrower than that of the atomic transitions.
In its conventional mode of operation, the light is produced by a hollow cathode lamp. Inside the lamp is a cylindrical metal cathode containing the metal for excitation, and an anode. When a high voltage is applied across the anode and cathode, the metal atoms in the cathode are excited into producing light with a specific wavelength. The type of hollow cathode tube depends on the metal being analyzed. For analyzing the concentration of copper in an ore, a copper cathode tube would be used, and likewise for any other metal being analyzed.
Atomic absorption spectroscopy can also be performed by lasers, primarily diode lasers because of their good properties for laser absorption spectrometry. The technique is then either referred to as diode laser atomic absorption spectrometry (DLAAS or DLAS), or, since wavelength modulation most often is employed, wavelength modulation absorption spectrometry.
The narrow bandwidth of hollow cathode lamps make spectral overlap rare. That is, it is unlikely that an absorption line from one element will overlap with another. Molecular emission is much broader, so it is more likely that some molecular absorption band will overlap with an atomic line. This can result in artificially high absorption and an improperly high calculation for the concentration in the solution. Three methods are typically used to correct for this:
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