A mass spectrometer is used to identify unknown substances, to determine the composition of mixtures and to
accurately measure the relative amounts of substances present. It has many uses in the chemical, engineering
and space industries, the Rovers which NASA sent to the planet Mars all had mass spectrometers on board to
analysis Martian rocks, minerals and gases in the atmosphere.
In the A-level chemistry specifications there are two main types of mass spectrometers that you will need to know about. If you are studying the AQA specification you will need to be able explain the working of a time of flight mass spectrometer and carry out some calculations based on this method of mass spectroscopy. This page page covers the workings of the mass spectrometer for A-level chemistry courses other than AQA.
Perhaps the most common mass spectrometer in use is the single beam mass spectrometer. To analyse the sample of the unknown substance under examination we need to consider what happens in each of 4 separate stages in the operation of this type of mass spectrometer. These 4 stages are:
If we imagine the electrons as being like fast moving solid particles or balls/bullets, then when the molecules
or atoms in the injected sampl meet these fast moving
electrons, they will have 1 of their outer
electron removed or knocked off. This will leave a positively charged ion behind.
If we call the injected sample X, then we can show this as:
Where e represents the electron being knocked off the sample x. You may also see this equation written as:
Here the first e represents the electron from the electron gun which impacts the sample X, forming a positively charged ion, X+(g) and the 2e on the product side represent the one electron lost by the sample X and also the electron from the electron gun.
For example the equations below represent the ionisation of of neon gas and hydrogen gas:
And for hydrogen gas we have:
Since the sample molecules are effectively being bombarded by fast
moving electrons from the electron gun it
that the sample molecules will be fragmente
or broken up into smaller fragments which will
appear in the mass spectrum of the molecul.
It is also possible that ions with a 2+ charge maybe produced during this ionisation stage. Though the energy required to remove 2 electrons from the sample molecule will obviously be much larger than that required to remove a single electron, so these doubly charged ions will be present in much smaller amounts.
The next key step that occurs in the mass spectrometer is
acceleration of the ions formed. The positively charged ions will be
accelerated up the tube by an electric field, they will be accelerated towards
negatively charged plates.
Here they will pass through a series of slits and a single ion beam
will form. The ions will be accelerated in a manner that
results in them all having the same kinetic energy. This
means that the lighter ions will be travellling faster than the
One of the main pieces of information that the mass spectrometer provides is the Ar or Mr of the substance under analysis. If the sample contains a mixture of substances it would be very useful if we could obtain the Mr for each substance present. Now after the ionisation step we may have a range of different substances most of these will be ions with a charge of +1. The mass spectrometer will give you a read out of the mass to charge ratio, often called m/z ratio of any substance it detects. Now if the charge (z) is simply equal to +1, then the mass to charge ratio, m/z, is simply the mass.
The deflection is a key part of this type of mass spectrometer. The ion are deflected by the strong magnetic field produced by the electromagnet. The amount the ions are deflected depends upon their mass to charge ratio (m/z). The deflection is greatest when:
The detector plat has a negative charge due to excess electrons being present on it. When the positively charged ions arrive at the detector plate they gain an electron and are reduced. This involves the movement of electrons, or a flow of current. The more electrons that flow the more ions are present, that is their abundance is high. This whole process will be monitored and controlled by a computer.
You should be able to describe in detail what happens in each of these 4 key stages or steps in the spectromter.