ICP – MS 101: Everything You Need To Know

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Earth is filled with all sorts of elemental combinations. When scientists need to determine the chemical composition of certain compounds, they frequently employ a technique known as inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS, or ICP Mass Spec).

This process is an elemental evaluation technique, which means it measures elements and not molecules or compounds.

What is ICP-MS?

Inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry measures elements at low quantities in biological fluids. While some labs still rely on traditional methods like atomic absorption and combustion, some gradually shift to more modern methods with ICP-MS.

As this trend continues, scientists have to:

  • Explore and understand the analytical components of ICP-MS
  • Become aware of the possibility of spectroscopic and non-spectroscopic interference
  • Be mindful of the strategies for eliminating or mitigating these issues

How it Works

ICP-MS employs an argon (Ar) plasma – the ICP – to transform a specimen into ions, then evaluated using a mass spectrometer – the MS.

What are the fundamentals of ICP-MS? The method produces a fast evaluation of the complex given samples, with much relatively low detection limits than ICP-OES, making it an effective option for trace element assessment.

Generally, the electron source (the ICP), a mass spectrometer (MS) – typically a monitoring quadrupole mass filter – and a detector comprise an ICP-MS instrument.

Also, the ICP is at 1 atm, and the MS and detector are in a sealed chamber. So, an ICP-MS needs a pressure gauge, a pressurized interface, and electrically charged ion “lenses” to concentrate the charged particles through the system.

Technologically advanced ICP-MS structures also typically include a device or mechanism for determining spectral obstruction.

Trace element analysis in tissue specimens is helpful in various health contexts. Key elements measured for food applications include:

  • Iodine
  • Manganese
  • Copper
  • Selenium
  • Zinc

These elements play a major role in various cellular mechanisms such as ionic flow, oxygen-carrying, hormone production, and breakdown of biological reactions.

Disturbances in the normal metabolism of these elements may affect (or be a side effect of) several pathophysiological conditions. Certain atoms are known to have harmful effects and are thus analyzed to ascertain exposure like:

  • Arsenic,
  • Cadmium,
  • Mercury
  • Lead

Trace ion analysis has previously used a variety of scientific techniques.

Understanding the Mechanism Used

ICP-MS (inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry) is an effective method for detecting particles in samples. An ICPMS can detect a wide variety of elements. The ICP-MS system can quantify the colored atoms and provide an overall number of elements in the sample.

Compared to other ionization methods, like flame ionization, the advantages of using plasma are that ionization takes place in a chemically neutral environment, blocks oxide formation, and completes ionization better. Also, the torch’s temperature profile is pretty constant, minimizing self-absorption effects.

For ionization mechanisms, standard curves are ascertained over multiple orders of magnitude. The mechanisms underlying ICP-MS analysis will be explored in depth. Generally, the procedure can be explained in 4 stages, namely:

  • Sample Introduction
  • ICP Torch
  • Interface
  • MS (Mass Spectrometry)

Liquid specimens are nebulized in the introduction stage, producing delicate aerosol scientists and then shifting to the argon plasma. Next, the heated plasma atomizes and ionizes the sample, resulting in ions obtained through the interface stage and into a series of electrically charged lenses known as ion optics.

Next, the ion optics concentrates and directs the electron beams into the quadrupole mass analyzer. The mass analyzer separates ions based on their mass-charge ratio (m/z), which is then measured by the detector.

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Scientific Applications

The integrated circuits (ICs) observed in technologies ranging from production droids to vehicles, aircraft, and aerospace are at the heart of today’s digital world. A silicon-based integrated circuit (IC) consists of endless individual transistors (or switches) crammed onto a silicon wafer device.

Generally, the structure of the device is made up of layered layers of oxide, polysilicon, silicon nitride dielectric, and conducting metal interconnects. Layers are linked together by “vias” to form a three-dimensional structure that provides the necessary computing or memory functionality.

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What Are The Steps Involved in The Procedure?

The long procedure can be broken down into the following steps:

1. Sample Introduction

ICP-MS devices are mainly aimed at the analysis of liquids. Although solid specimens can be directly analyzed (electrothermal vaporization or laser-ablation), these methods aren’t often utilized in clinical research facilities.

2. Introduction of Liquid Samples

Liquid specimens are initially turned into aerosols via a nebulizer before being placed into the ICP. An autosampler and a peristaltic pump are commonly used to supply the specimen to the nebulizer, but self-aspirating models can be purchased if preferred.

3. Nebulizer

Several types of nebulizers are on the market, including pneumatic, ultrasonic, and dissolving models. The most popular option used in routine clinical applications is pneumatic nebulizers, which rely on gas movement to produce the aerosol.

Unlike pneumatic nebulizers, some improve analytical responsiveness by an absolute scale and reduce the generation of oxide species in the plasma, affecting the evaluation of certain analytes.

4. Spraying Chamber

The specimen is then introduced into the spray chamber. This chamber has a simple design but provides a few key functions. It preferentially filters out the bigger aerosol droplets obtained by the nebulizer and functions to smooth out the peristaltic pump’s nebulization ‘pulses.’

This is significant because plasma is ineffectual at separating large droplets (diameters greater than 10 m). Aerosol droplets arise from the nebulizer and move down a central tube in a double-pass spray chamber.

5. Hyphenated ICP-MS

ICP-MS, like traditional methods, completely atomizes the sample, making various chemical compositions (‘species’) of an element indiscernible once the specimen gets to the plasma.

Chromatographic systems like ion-exchange HPLC or gas chromatography can be linked to the ICP-MS by attaching the end of the analytical device to the nebulizer with a capillary tube.

This allows you to differentiate different samples by optimizing chromatographic conditions, letting investigating scientists study every fraction separately – aka speciation. Speciation is useful in some clinical applications as it highlights the various species which often have different effects and toxicological profiles.

6. Plasma Inductively Coupled

The plasma refers to the ionized gas composed of cations and free electrons. Generally, the plasma’s (ICP) role in ICP-MS is to ionize the sample. Unlike other types of MS, which contribute a small amount of energy to the sample solution, the ICP is considered a ‘hard’ ionization method as it completely atomizes most molecules.

7. Ionization

Following the nebulization of the sample, the tertiary aerosol exiting the spray chamber is pushed in an argon gas stream along the injector and into the plasma. The sample is desolvated, vaporized, atomized, and ionized once it has reached the high-temperature plasma.

Most elements produce singly charged cations, but some elements also produce a tiny fraction of doubly charged ions. The extent to which an element is ionized is determined by the plasma’s temperature and the element’s ionization potential.


So there you have it! ICP-MS is a crucial technique scientists use to identify and distinguish different elements in given samples. The specificity of the method helps make sure that the results are as accurate as possible.







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