Polarography is an voltammetric measurement whose response is determined by combined diffusion/convection mass transport. Polarography is a specific type of measurement that falls into the general category of linear-sweep voltammetry where the electrode potential is altered in a linear fashion from the initial potential to the final potential. As a linear sweep method controlled by convection/diffusion mass transport, the current vs. potential response of a polarographic experiment has the typical sigmoidal shape. What makes polarography different from other linear sweep voltammetry measurements is that polarography makes use of the dropping mercury electrode (DME). Close-up of the DME.
A plot of the current vs. potential in a polarography experiment shows the current oscillations corresponding to the drops of Hg falling from the capillary. If one connected the maximum current of each drop, a sigmoidal shape would result. The limiting current (the plateau on the sigmoid), called the diffusion current because diffusion is the principal contribution to the flux of electroactive material at this point of the Hg drop life, is related to analyte concentration by the Ilkovic equation:
id = 708nD1/2m2/3t1/6c
Where D is the diffusion coefficient of the analyte in the medium (cm2/s), n is the number of electrons transferred per mole of analyte, m is the mass flow rate of Hg through the capillary (mg/sec), and t is the drop lifetime is seconds, and c is analyte concentration in mol/cm3.
There are a number of limitations to the polarography experiment for quantitative analytical measurements. Because the current is continuously measured during the growth of the Hg drop, there is a substantial contribution from capacitive current. As the Hg flows from the capillary end, there is initially a large increase in the surface area. As a consequence, the initial current is dominated by capacitive effects as charging of the rapidly increasing interface occurs. Toward the end of the drop life, there is little change in the surface area which diminishes the contribution of capacitance changes to the total current. At the same time, any redox process which occurs will result in faradaic current that decays approximately as the square root of time (due to the increasing dimensions of the Nernst diffusion layer). The exponential decay of the capacitive current is much more rapid than the decay of the faradaic current; hence, the faradaic current is proportionally larger at the end of the drop life. Unfortunately, this process is complicated by the continuously changing potential that is applied to the working electrode (the Hg drop) throughout the experiment. Because the potential is changing during the drop lifetime (assuming typical experimental parameters of a 2mV/sec scan rate and a 4 sec drop time, the potential can change by 8 mV from the beginning to the end of the drop), the charging of the interface (capacitive current) has a continuous contribution to the total current, even at the end of the drop when the surface area is not rapidly changing. As such, the typical signal to noise of a polarographic experiment allows detection limits of only approximately 10-5 or 10-6 M. Better discrimination against the capacitive current can be obtained using the pulse polarographic techniques.