The classical preparative chromatography column is a glass tube with a diameter from 5 to 50 mm and a height of 50 cm to 1 m with a tap at the bottom. A slurry is prepared of the eluent with the stationary phase powder and then carefully poured into the column. Care must be taken to avoid air bubbles. A solution of the organic material is pipetted on top of the stationary phase. This layer is usually topped with a small layer of sand or with cotton or glass wool to protect the shape of the organic layer from the velocity of newly added eluant. Eluant is slowly passed through the column to advance the organic material. Often a spherical eluent reservoir or an eluent-filled and stoppered separating funnel is put on top of the column.
The individual components are retained by the stationary phase differently and separate from each other while they are running at different speeds through the column with the eluant. At the end of the column they elute one at a time. During the entire chromatography process the eluant is collected in a series of fractions. The composition of the eluant flow can be monitored and each fraction is analyzed for dissolved compounds, e.g. by analytical chromatography, UV absorption, or fluorescence. Colored compounds (or fluorescent compounds with the aid of an UV lamp) can be seen through the glass wall as moving bands.
The stationary phase or adsorbent in column chromatography is a solid. The most common stationary phase for column chromatography is silica gel, followed by alumina. Cellulose powder has often been used in the past. Also possible are ion exchange chromatography, reversed-phase chromatography (RP), affinity chromatography or expanded bed adsorption (EBA). The stationary phases are usually finely ground powders or gels and/or are microporous for an increased surface, though in EBA a fluidized bed is used.'''
The mobile phase or eluent is either a pure solvent or a mixture of different solvents. It is chosen so that the retention factor value of the compound of interest is roughly around 0.75 in order to minimize the time and the amount of eluent to run the chromatography. The eluent has also been chosen so that the different compounds can be separated effectively. The eluent is optimized in small scale pretests, often using thin layer chromatography (TLC) with the same stationary phase.
A faster flow rate of the eluent minimizes the time required to run a column and thereby minimizes diffusion, resulting in a better separation, see Van Deemter's equation. A simple laboratory column runs by gravity flow. The flow rate of such a column can be increased by extending the fresh eluent filled column above the top of the stationary phase or decreased by the tap controls. Better flow rates can be achieved by using a pump or by using compressed gas (e.g. air, nitrogen, or argon) to push the solvent through the column (flash column chromatography).
Column chromatography is an extremely time consuming stage in any lab and can quickly become the bottle neck for any process lab. Therefore, several manufactures have developed automated flash chromatography systems (typically referred to as LPLC, low pressure liquid chromatography, around 50-75 psi) that minimize human involvement in the purification process. Automated systems will include components normally found on more expensive HPLC systems such as a gradient pump, sample injection ports, a UV detector and a fraction collector to collect the eluent. Typically these automated systems can separate samples from a few milligrams up to an industrial kg scale and offer a much cheaper and quicker solution to doing multiple injections on prep-HPLC systems.
The resolution (or the ability to separate a mixture) on an LPLC system will always be lower compared to HPLC, as the packing material in an HPLC column can be much smaller, typically only 5 micrometre thus increasing stationary phase surface area, increasing surface interactions and giving better separation. However, the use of this small packing media causes the high back pressure and is why it is termed high pressure liquid chromatography. The LPLC columns are typically packed with silica of around 50 micrometres, thus reducing back pressure and resolution, but it also removes the need for expensive high pressure pumps. Manufactures are now starting to move into higher pressure flash chromatography systems and have termed these as medium pressure liquid chromatography (MPLC) systems which operate above 150 psi.
The software controlling an automated system will coordinate the components, allow a user to only collect the factions that contain their target compound (assuming they are detectable on the systems detector) and help the user to find the resulting purified material within the fraction collector. The software will also save the resulting chromatograph from the process for archival and/or later recall purposes.
A representative example of column chromatography as part of an undergraduate laboratory exercise is the separation of three components (out of 28) in the oil of spearmint: carvone, limonene and dehydrocarveol . A microscale setup consisting of a Pasteur pipette as column with silica gel stationary phase can suffice. The starting eluent is hexane and solvent polarity is increased during the process by adding ethyl acetate.