The design of a mass spectrometer has three essential modules: an ion source, which transforms the molecules in a sample into ionized fragments; a mass analyzer, which sorts the ions by their masses by applying electric and magnetic fields; and a detector, which measures the value of some indicator quantity and thus provides data for calculating the abundances of each ion fragment present. The technique has both qualitative and quantitative uses, such as identifying unknown compounds, determining the isotopic composition of elements in a compound, determining the structure of a compound by observing its fragmentation, quantifying the amount of a compound in a sample, studying the fundamentals of gas phase ion chemistry (the chemistry of ions and neutrals in a vacuum), and determining other physical, chemical, or biological properties of compounds.
In 1886, Eugen Goldstein observed rays in gas discharges under low pressure that travelled through the channels in a perforated cathode toward the anode, in the opposite direction to the negatively charged cathode rays. Goldstein called these positively charged anode rays "Kanalstrahlen"; the standard translation of this term into English is "canal rays". Wilhelm Wien found that strong electric or magnetic fields deflected the canal rays and, in 1899, constructed a device with parallel electric and magnetic fields that separated the positive rays according to their charge-to-mass ratio (Q/m). Wien found that the charge-to-mass ratio depended on the nature of the gas in the discharge tube. English scientist J.J. Thomson later improved on the work of Wien by reducing the pressure to create a mass spectrograph.
Some of the modern techniques of mass spectrometry were devised by Arthur Jeffrey Dempster and F.W. Aston in 1918 and 1919 respectively. In 1989, half of the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Hans Dehmelt and Wolfgang Paul for the development of the ion trap technique in the 1950s and 1960s. In 2002, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to John Bennett Fenn for the development of electrospray ionization (ESI) and Koichi Tanaka for the development of soft laser desorption (SLD) in 1987. However earlier, matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization (MALDI), was developed by Franz Hillenkamp and Michael Karas; this technique has been widely used for protein analysis .
The following example describes the operation of a spectrometer mass analyzer, which is of the sector type. (Other analyzer types are treated below.) Consider a sample of sodium chloride (table salt). In the ion source, the sample is vaporized (turned into gas) and ionized (transformed into electrically charged particles) into sodium (Na+) and chloride (Cl-) ions. Sodium atoms and ions are monoisotopic, with a mass of about 23 amu. Chloride atoms and ions come in two isotopes with masses of approximately 35 amu (at a natural abundance of about 75 percent) and approximately 37 amu (at a natural abundance of about 25 percent). The analyzer part of the spectrometer contains electric and magnetic fields, which exert forces on ions traveling through these fields. The speed of a charged particle may be increased or decreased while passing through the electric field, and its direction may be altered by the magnetic field. The magnitude of the deflection of the moving ion's trajectory depends on its mass-to-charge ratio. By Newton's second law of motion, lighter ions get deflected by the magnetic force more than heavier ions. The streams of sorted ions pass from the analyzer to the detector, which records the relative abundance of each ion type. This information is used to determine the chemical element composition of the original sample (i.e. that both sodium and chlorine are present in the sample) and the isotopic composition of its constituents (the ratio of 35Cl to 37Cl).
Techniques for ionization have been key to determining what types of samples can be analyzed by mass spectrometry. Electron ionization and chemical ionization are used for gases and vapors. In chemical ionization sources, the analyte is ionized by chemical ion-molecule reactions during collisions in the source. Two techniques often used with liquid and solid biological samples include electrospray ionization (invented by John Fenn) and matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization (MALDI, developed by K. Tanaka and separately by M. Karas and F. Hillenkamp). Inductively coupled plasma (ICP) sources are used primarily for metal analysis on a wide array of sample types. Others include glow discharge, field desorption (FD), fast atom bombardment (FAB), thermospray, desorption/ionization on silicon (DIOS), Direct Analysis in Real Time (DART), atmospheric pressure chemical ionization (APCI), secondary ion mass spectrometry (SIMS), spark ionization and thermal ionisation (TIMS). Ion Attachment Ionization is a newer soft ionization technique that allows for fragmentation free analysis.
where F is the force applied to the ion, m is the mass of the ion, a is the acceleration, Q is the ion charge, E is the electric field, and v x B is the vector cross product of the ion velocity and the magnetic field
Equating the above expressions for the force applied to the ion yields:
This differential equation is the classic equation of motion for charged particles. Together with the particle's initial conditions, it completely determines the particle's motion in space and time in terms of m/Q. Thus mass spectrometers could be thought of as "mass-to-charge spectrometers". When presenting data, it is common to use the (officially) dimensionless m/z, where z is the number of elementary charges (e) on the ion (z=Q/e). This quantity, although it is informally called the mass-to-charge ratio, more accurately speaking represents the ratio of the mass number and the charge number, z.
There are many types of mass analyzers, using either static or dynamic fields, and magnetic or electric fields, but all operate according to the above differential equation. Each analyzer type has its strengths and weaknesses. Many mass spectrometers use two or more mass analyzers for tandem mass spectrometry (MS/MS). In addition to the more common mass analyzers listed below, there are others designed for special situations.
There are many mass/charge separation and isolation methods but most commonly used is the mass instability mode in which the RF potential is ramped so that the orbit of ions with a mass are stable while ions with mass become unstable and are ejected on the z-axis onto a detector.
Ions may also be ejected by the resonance excitation method, whereby a supplemental oscillatory excitation voltage is applied to the endcap electrodes, and the trapping voltage amplitude and/or excitation voltage frequency is varied to bring ions into a resonance condition in order of their mass/charge ratio.
The cylindrical ion trap mass spectrometer is a derivative of the quadrupole ion trap mass spectrometer.
Fourier transform mass spectrometry, or more precisely Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance MS, measures mass by detecting the image current produced by ions cyclotroning in the presence of a magnetic field. Instead of measuring the deflection of ions with a detector such as an electron multiplier, the ions are injected into a Penning trap (a static electric/magnetic ion trap) where they effectively form part of a circuit. Detectors at fixed positions in space measure the electrical signal of ions which pass near them over time, producing a periodic signal. Since the frequency of an ion's cycling is determined by its mass to charge ratio, this can be deconvoluted by performing a Fourier transform on the signal. FTMS has the advantage of high sensitivity (since each ion is "counted" more than once) and much higher resolution and thus precision.
Ion cyclotron resonance (ICR) is an older mass analysis technique similar to FTMS except that ions are detected with a traditional detector. Ions trapped in a Penning trap are excited by an RF electric field until they impact the wall of the trap, where the detector is located. Ions of different mass are resolved according to impact time.
Very similar nonmagnetic FTMS has been performed, where ions are electrostatically trapped in an orbit around a central, spindle shaped electrode. The electrode confines the ions so that they both orbit around the central electrode and oscillate back and forth along the central electrode's long axis. This oscillation generates an image current in the detector plates which is recorded by the instrument. The frequencies of these image currents depend on the mass to charge ratios of the ions. Mass spectra are obtained by Fourier transformation of the recorded image currents.
Similar to Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometers, Orbitraps have a high mass accuracy, high sensitivity and a good dynamic range.
The final element of the mass spectrometer is the detector. The detector records either the charge induced or the current produced when an ion passes by or hits a surface. In a scanning instrument, the signal produced in the detector during the course of the scan versus where the instrument is in the scan (at what m/Q) will produce a mass spectrum, a record of ions as a function of m/Q.
Typically, some type of electron multiplier is used, though other detectors including Faraday cups and ion-to-photon detectors are also used. Because the number of ions leaving the mass analyzer at a particular instant is typically quite small, considerable amplification is often necessary to get a signal. Microchannel Plate Detectors are commonly used in modern commercial instruments. In FTMS and Orbitraps, the detector consists of a pair of metal surfaces within the mass analyzer/ion trap region which the ions only pass near as they oscillate. No DC current is produced, only a weak AC image current is produced in a circuit between the electrodes. Other inductive detectors have also been used.
Tandem mass spectrometry enables a variety of experimental sequences. Many commercial mass spectrometers are designed to expedite the execution of such routine sequences as single reaction monitoring (SRM), multiple reaction monitoring (MRM), and precursor ion scan. In SRM, the first analyzer allows only a single mass through and the second analyzer monitors for a single user defined fragment ion. MRM allows for multiple user defined fragment ions. SRM and MRM are most often used with scanning instruments where the second mass analysis event is duty cycle limited. These experiments are used to increase specificity of detection of known molecules, notably in pharmacokinetic studies. Precursor ion scan refers to monitoring for a specific loss from the precursor ion. The first and second mass analyzers scan across the spectrum as partitioned by a user defined m/z value. This experiment is used to detect specific motifs within unknown molecules.
An important type of Tandem mass spectrometry is Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS), which uses very high voltages, usually in the mega-volt range, to accelerate negative ions into a type of tandem mass spectrometer. One of the most important applications of this technique is radiocarbon dating.
When a specific configuration of source, analyzer, and detector becomes conventional in practice, often a compound acronym arises to designate it, and the compound acronym may be more well known among nonspectrometrists than the component acronyms. The epitome of this is MALDI-TOF, which simply refers to combining a Matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization source with a Time-of-flight mass analyzer. The MALDI-TOF moniker is more widely recognized by the non-mass spectrometrist scientist than MALDI or TOF individually. Other examples include inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (ICP-MS), accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS), Thermal ionization-mass spectrometry (TIMS) and spark source mass spectrometry (SSMS). Sometimes the use of the generic "MS" actually connotes a very specific mass analyzer and detection system, as is the case with AMS, which is always sector based.
Certain applications of mass spectrometry have developed monikers that although strictly speaking they would seem to refer to a broad application, in practice have come instead to connote a specific or a limited number of instrument configurations. An example of this is isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS), which refers in practice to the use of a limited number of sector based mass analyzers; this name is used to refer to both the application and the instrument used for the application.
A common combination is gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC/MS or GC-MS). In this technique, a gas chromatograph is used to separate different compounds. This stream of separated compounds is fed online into the ion source, a metallic filament to which voltage is applied. This filament emits electrons which ionize the compounds. The ions can then further fragment, yielding predictable patterns. Intact ions and fragments pass into the mass spectrometer's analyzer and are eventually detected.
The duty cycle of IMS is short relative to liquid chromatography or gas chromatography separations and can thus be coupled to such techniques, producing triple modalities such as LC/IMS/MS.
Certain types of mass spectrometry data are best represented as a mass chromatogram. Types of chromatograms include selected ion monitoring (SIM), total ion current (TIC), and selected reaction monitoring chromatogram (SRM), among many others.
Other types of mass spectrometry data are well represented as a three dimensional contour map. In this form, the mass-to-charge, m/z is on the x-axis, intensity the y-axis, and an additional experimental parameter, such as time, is recorded on the z-axis.
Mass spectrometry data analysis is a complicated subject matter that is very specific to the type of experiment producing the data. There are general subdivisions of data that are fundamental to understand any data.
Many mass spectrometers work in either negative ion mode or positive ion mode. It is very important to know whether the observed ions are negatively or positively charged. This is often important in determining the neutral mass but it also indicates something about the nature of the molecules.
Different types of ion source result in different arrays of fragments produced from the original molecules. An electron ionization source produces many fragments and mostly odd electron species with one charge, whereas an electrospray source usually produces quasimolecular even electron species that may be multiply charged. Tandem mass spectrometry purposely produces fragment ions post-source and can drastically change the sort of data achieved by an experiment.
By understanding the origin of a sample, certain expectations can be assumed as to the component molecules of the sample and their fragmentations. A sample from a synthesis/manufacturing process will likely contain impurities chemically related to the target component. A relatively crudely prepared biological sample will likely contain a certain amount of salt, which may form adducts with the analyte molecules in certain analyses.
Results can also depend heavily on how the sample was prepared and how it was run/introduced. An important example is the issue of which matrix is used for MALDI spotting, since much of the energetics of the desorption/ionization event is controlled by the matrix rather than the laser power. Sometimes samples are spiked with sodium or another ion-carrying species to produce adducts rather than a protonated species.
The greatest source of trouble when non-mass spectrometrists try to conduct mass spectrometry on their own or collaborate with a mass spectrometrist is inadequate definition of the research goal of the experiment. Adequate definition of the experimental goal is a prerequisite for collecting the proper data and successfully interpreting it. Among the determinations that can be achieved with mass spectrometry are molecular mass, molecular structure, and sample purity. Each of these questions requires a different experimental procedure. Simply asking for a "mass spec" will most likely not answer the real question at hand.
Interpretation of mass spectra Since the precise structure or peptide sequence of a molecule is deciphered through the set of fragment masses, the interpretation of mass spectra requires combined use of various techniques. Usually the first strategy for identifying an unknown compound is to compare its experimental mass spectrum against a library of mass spectra. If the search comes up empty, then manual interpretation or software assisted interpretation of mass spectra are performed. Computer simulation of ionization and fragmentation processes occurring in mass spectrometer is the primary tool for assigning structure or peptide sequence to a molecule. An a priori structural information is fragmented in silico and the resulting pattern is compared with observed spectrum. Such simulation is often supported by a fragmentation library that contains published patterns of known decomposition reactions. Software taking advantage of this idea has been developed for both small molecules and proteins.
Another way of interpreting mass spectra involves spectra with accurate mass. A mass-to-charge ratio value (m/z) with only integer precision can represent an immense number of theoretically possible ion structures. More "accurate" (actually, "precise") mass figures significantly reduce the number of candidate molecular formulas, albeit each can still represent large number of structurally diverse compounds. A computer algorithm called formula generator calculates all molecular formulas that theoretically fit a given mass with specified tolerance.
A recent technique for structure elucidation in mass spectrometry, called precursor ion fingerprinting identifies individual pieces of structural information by conducting a search of the tandem spectra of the molecule under investigation against a library of the product-ion spectra of structurally characterized precursor ions.
Mass spectrometry is also used to determine the isotopic composition of elements within a sample. Differences in mass among isotopes of an element are very small, and the less abundant isotopes of an element are typically very rare, so a very sensitive instrument is required. These instruments, sometimes referred to as isotope ratio mass spectrometers (IR-MS), usually use a single magnet to bend a beam of ionized particles towards a series of Faraday cups which convert particle impacts to electric current. A fast on-line analysis of deuterium content of water can be done using Flowing afterglow mass spectrometry, FA-MS. Probably the most sensitive and accurate mass spectrometer for this purpose is the accelerator mass spectrometer (AMS). Isotope ratios are important markers of a variety of processes. Some isotope ratios are used to determine the age of materials for example as in carbon dating. Labelling with stable isotopes is also used for protein quantification. (see Protein quantitation below)
Mass spectrometers are also widely used in space missions to measure the composition of plasmas. For example, the Cassini spacecraft carries the Cassini Plasma Spectrometer (CAPS), which measures the mass of ions in Saturn's magnetosphere.
Found mostly in the operating room, they were a part of a complex system in which respired gas samples from patients undergoing anesthesia were drawn into the instrument through a valve mechanism designed to sequentially connect up to 32 rooms to the mass spectrometer. A computer directed all operations of the system. The data collected from the mass spectrometer was delivered to the individual rooms for the anesthesiologist to use.
This magnetic sector mass spectrometer's uniqueness may have been the fact that a plane of detectors, each purposely positioned to collect all of the ion species expected to be in the samples, allowed the instrument to simultaneously report all of the patient respired gases. Although the mass range was limited to slightly over 120 u, fragmentation of some of the heavier molecules negated the need for a higher detection limit.