Trace Analysis Guide
This section will focus upon considerations in developing an ICP-MS measurement procedure for those using a spectrometer employing a quadrupole mass filter. These instruments are relatively easy to operate, have good stability, and are the most common instruments used by trace elemental analytical laboratories. They also have a resolution of something less than 1 amu (atomic mass unit). These instruments are typically referred to as low resolution instruments.
Some other types of spectrometers will not be addressed in this guide. These include: a) spectrometers using magnetic fields to disperse the ion beams can operate up to a resolving power of 1 part in 10,000; b) time-of flight- spectrometers; c) and spectrometers utilizing ion-trap principles. For more detail on the quadrupole as well as the other types of ICP-MS spectrometers, I encourage you to refer to the following references:
Plasma Source Mass Spectrometry - Developments and Applications; Holland, G., Tanner, S. D., Eds.; The Royal Society of Chemistry: Cambridge, U.K., 1997.
Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry; Mantaser, A., Ed.; Wiley-VCH: New York, 1998.
Taylor, H. E. Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass-Spectrometry, Practices and Techniques; Academic Press: New York, 2001.
Resolution is a property that should be understood. The peaks are considered to be resolved if the magnitude of the valley between two adjacent peaks in less than 10 % of the mean of the magnitude of the peaks:
NOTE: This is for neighboring peaks of the same intensity
Most commercial quadrupole mass spectrometers are capable of 0.8 amu mass resolution (at 10% of the valley definition and having equal adjacent peak intensities).
Having adjacent peaks at the same intensity is not a realistic or typical situation. Therefore, the ability to measure a m/z peak at a low concentration adjacent to a high concentration m/z peak is a situation that must be considered. This very important consideration is referenced as Abundance Sensitivity. The concern is that tailing from the larger peak into the smaller peak will occur, giving false high results for the smaller peak. I personally experience this problem on a daily basis while attempting to measure ppb to ppt levels of impurities in our products that are typically diluted to 100 - 200 µg/g for ICP-MS trace impurity analysis.
For the quadruple mass filter, the abundance sensitivities for adjacent peaks on the low and high mass are not equal. This is because the peaks are asymmetric and tend to tail more on the low mass side. If we have a high concentration element with a peak intensity of Ih at mass M and want to measure a low concentration element with a peak intensity of IL-1 on the low (M-1) mass side or IL+1 on the high (M+1) mass side, the ratios IL-1 / Ih and IL+1 / Ih, are referred to as the low-mass abundance sensitivity and high-mass abundance sensitivity, respectively. For a peak width of 0.8 amu, expected values of 1 x 10-5 and 1 x 10-6 for the low-mass and high-mass abundance sensitivities are not unreasonable. This means the concentrations will be measured to be ~ 1 ng/g on the low-mass side and ~ 0.1 ng/g on the high-mass side, adjacent to a mass with a concentration of 100 µg/g. If you are working at dilution factors of 10 to 400, this translates into significant errors. In these situations, I prefer to use axial view ICP-OES for the low or high mass elements.
This next section presents the most common interferences encountered in ICP-MS using the quadrupole mass filter (hereafter referred to as low-resolution ICP-MS). You can also find the major interferences for the popular isotopes in our interactive periodic table.
Isobaric interference is a result of equal mass isotopes of different elements present in the sample solution. Low-resolution instruments cannot distinguish between the isotopes. There are many examples in the intermediate mass regions where the second and third row transitions and the rare earths appear. Fortunately, there are no elemental singly charged isotopes that overlap with monoisotopic elements (9Be, 23Na, 27Al, 45Sc, 55Mn, 75As, 89Y, 103Rh, 127I, 133Cs, 141Pr, 159Tb, 165Ho, 169Tm, 197Au, and 232Th). However, for the monoisotopic elements, be aware of the other interferences to be discussed later. For elements having more than one isotope, the quickest fix may be ('may' is used because other interferences could be encountered) to use another isotope of that element. If the interference is from an isotope with roughly the same or lower peak intensity, it is possible to perform a correction by measuring the intensity of another isotope of the interfering element and subtracting the appropriate correction factor from the intensity of the interfered isotope. If you are working with an unknown sample composition, a semi-quantitative analysis is suggested with low-resolution instruments using a quick scan of the sample and the rather sophisticated semi-quantitative programs available on current instrumentation.
Polyatomic (Molecular) Interferences
Molecular interferences are due to the recombination of sample and matrix ions with Ar and other matrix components such as O, N, H, C, Cl, S, F, etc. The light elements (Li, Be, B) are not affected due to their small masses.
Starting with 39K, this type of interference becomes a significant issue. For example, 39K is interfered with by 38ArH and 23Na16O. Some polyatomic interferences can be avoided by eliminating certain matrix elements such as the classic 40Ar35Cl interference upon the monoisotopic element 75As, where the use of HCl in the sample preparation is to be avoided. The isotopes 56Fe, 39K, and 44Ca or 40Ca are all interfered with by combinations of the Ar, O, and N isotopes.
As we go to the heavier elements the major polyatomic interferences come from isotopes that are 16 atomic mass units lower than the analyte isotope through molecular oxide (MO) interference. The lanthanide element isotopes are especially prone to molecular oxide formation.
The use of cool plasma techniques, reaction / collision cells, desolvation, and chromatographic separations -- to name a few approaches -- have resulted in reduction and, in some cases, complete elimination of many polyatomic interferences. The severity of the MO interference can be reduced through reduction of the sample argon gas flow rate. Mass corrections may be an option in cases where the use of an alternate isotope is not an option. Polyatomic interferences are particularly troublesome in the determination of first row periodic table elements (K thru Se) due to the vast number of combinations of Ar with matrix components.
Doubly Charged Ion Interferences
Doubly charged ion interference is due to doubly charged element isotopes with twice the mass of the analyte isotope. For example, interference from 206Pb++ (m/e = 103) upon 103Rh is likely at high Pb concentration levels. Reduction in the sample Ar will minimize this interference. Fortunately, this type of interference is not as prominent in Ar plasmas, but care should be exercised in matrices containing high levels of mid to heavy mass element isotopes. The alkaline and rare earth elements form doubly charged ions to a extent that is greater, relative to the other elements.
In addition to the matrix effects encountered for ICP-OES that are discussed in Section 15, ICP-MS suffers from space charge effects and salt buildup on the orifice of the interface sampler cone.
Space Charge Effects
These effects are thought to occur at the MS interface, the region between the skimmer tip and ion optics and in the ion optics region. The net result is a suppression of the signal in high concentrations of a matrix element. The kinetic energy of the ion element matrix affects the degree of suppression with larger masses (higher kinetic energy) causing more depression than lower masses. Due to differences between instruments in interface and ion optic designs it is difficult to predict the conditions under which the effect is minimal. In my case, working at matrix element concentrations of 100 - 200 µg/g will cause only a slight reduction in the signal. Under 'cool plasma' conditions, I have found this suppression effect to be more pronounced. The approach taken in our laboratory is to attempt to keep the matrix element concentration at or below the 100 µg/g concentration level.
The buildup of salts/oxides in samples containing high levels of matrix elements (sea water is a common example) will result in partial or total clogging of the sampler cone. Techniques used to help control this effect include dilution to below 0.1% total solids, flow injection analysis, or ion exchange removal of the matrix component(s).
Quantitative Analysis Measurement Techniques
What follows are some of the more popular techniques used for quantitative analysis using ICP-MS.
External Calibration using Calibration
This is the calibration technique that is most popular. Many analysts use this approach for matrices that are known and can be matched. The use of internal standards is helpful in accounting for drift. The choice of the internal standard / isotope mass combination is reasonably well understood. Finally, the use of spike recoveries on a split portion of the sample allows the analyst to determine if space charge effects are significant. The following are some brief notes on this topic:
- Know or learn about the sample composition. A semi-quantitative analysis using a scanning approach for the entire mass range allows the analyst to predict interferences and select internal standards and analyte isotopic masses.
- Perform interference check analysis. Prepare for the variations in the matrix and analyte composition and determine if corrections that have been built into the procedure are capable of providing the required accuracy.
- Use internal standards to help correct for drift.
Follow these basic guide lines for internal standard selection:
1. Avoid M2+ interferences
2. Avoid MO and other molecular interferences
3. Any naturally occurring internal standard element in your sample must be insignificant in comparison to the amount added
4. Use internal standard elements as close as possible to the masses of the analyte elements
5. Make sure the matrix doesn't react with the internal standard to alter (lower) it's concentration
6. Common internal standard elements are 6Li, Be, Sc, Ga, Ge, Y, Rh, In, Cs, Pr, Tb, Ho, Re, Bi, and Th - note many are monoisotopic.
- Use peak hopping rather than scanning for the final analysis.
Peak hopping will save time and this capability is one of the major advantages of low-resolution systems.
- At the beginning of the analytical day, optimize the instrument using 'optimization' standards.
I prefer to use a 10 ppb combination of Mg, U, Ce, and Rh. In addition, I like to optimize the instrument to obtain 140CeO / 140Ce and 140Ce+2 / 140Ce currents of < 0.5% relative. I routinely obtain a 'time scan' of 24Mg, 36Ar, 70Ce+2, 103Rh, 140Ce, 156CeO, 230BKG, and 238U at the beginning of each analytical day. These scans are saved and accompany the following analytical data. Torch alignment, sample argon (nebulizer) flow, and ion optics settings are the parameters I most often change (in the order listed) in the optimization process .
- Make sure the introduction system is clean.
I prefer using glass concentric nebulizers and cyclonic spray chambers. I use dilute nitric acid for cleaning. It is often advantageous to change the entire introduction system, sipper to torch, each analytical day. In addition, the sample interface cones need to be rotated each analytical day with cleaned cones. Cleaning the cones in a 1% solution of nitric acid using an ultrasonic bath for 1-2 minutes is typically all that is required. Carefully dry the cones in a drying oven before reusing.
- Periodically check the performance of the ICP-MS during the analytical 'run.'
I prefer to split the sample and spike half of the sample with a known low ppb addition of an assortment of analytes ranging from Mg to U. After confirming the calibration by analyzing the standards, I like to use an analysis sequence of blank, sample, and sample + spike. The spike recovery allows me to determine if space charge effects from the matrix element(s) have significantly lowered the analyte signal.
- Know the stability of your standard.
For guidance, consult our Part-Per-Billion Stability Study.
This approach is common with ICP-OES but it may give the analyst a false sense of security when using ICP-MS. It is a concern that this technique has earned such a 'good reputation' in view of the fact that it does not guarantee anything except a perfect matrix match. ICP-MS has many more potentially serious problems than matrix matching. The same interference issues discussed above must come into consideration if you choose to use standard additions. For example, if you have a molecular MO interference before the addition and do not use an alternate mass or perform a correction, you will still obtain a false high result. Spend the time to learn about the matrix and identify potential interference issues. After you reach a high level of confidence in the identification and correction for and/or elimination of interferences, then the standard additions approach is a convenient way to 'match' a complicated matrix.
The technique of isotope dilution ICP mass spectrometry (ID-ICP-MS) provides the analyst with the possibility of using a primary (definitive) analytical method for the determination of trace metals in a variety of sample types. Examples of primary analytical methods are isotope dilution mass spectrometry (IDMS), ID-ICP-MS, gravimetry, titrimetry, coulometry, differential scanning calorimetry and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. ID-ICP-MS is of particular interest to the Reference Material producer of materials for trace metals content. Unfortunately, there are several of the elements that are monoisotopic (9Be, 23Na, 27Al, 45Sc, 55Mn, 75As, 89Y, 103Rh, 127I, 133Cs, 141Pr, 159Tb, 165Ho, 169Tm, 197Au, and 232Th), making ID-ICP-MS useless for these elements. Our laboratory has been studying ID-ICP-MS along with the execution of accurate isotopic abundance ratio measurements (another possible primary method) and will publish these studies in the months to come.