Mass spectrometry (MS) is an analytical technique for the determination of the elemental composition of a sample or molecule. It is also used for elucidating the chemical structures of molecules, such as peptides and other chemical compounds. The MS principle consists of ionizing chemical compounds to generate charged molecules or molecule fragments and measurement of their mass-to-charge ratios.
In a typical MS procedure:
1. a sample is loaded onto the MS instrument, and undergoes vaporization.
2. the components of the sample are ionized by one of a variety of methods (e.g., by impacting them with an electron beam), which results in the formation of charged particles (ions)
3. the positive ions are then accelerated by an electric field
4. computation of the mass-to-charge ratio (m/z) of the particles based on the details of motion of the ions as they transit through electromagnetic fields, and
5. detection of the ions, which in step 4 were sorted according to m/z.
MS instruments consist of three modules:
1. an ion source, which can convert gas phase sample molecules into ions (or, in the case of electrospray ionization, move ions that exist in solution into the gas phase);
2. a mass analyzer, which sorts the ions by their masses by applying electromagnetic fields;
3. a detector, which measures the value of an indicator quantity and thus provides data for calculating the abundances of each ion present.
The technique has both qualitative and quantitative uses. These include identifying unknown compounds, determining the isotopic composition of elements in a molecule, and determining the structure of a compound by observing its fragmentation. Other uses include quantifying the amount of a compound in a sample or studying the fundamentals of gas phase ion chemistry (the chemistry of ions and neutrals in a vacuum).
MS is now in very common use in analytical laboratories that study physical, chemical, or biological properties of a great variety of compounds.