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Gas Chromatography

- Jan 16, 2018 -

Gas Chromatography

Gas chromatography is a term used to describe the group of analytical separation techniques used to analyze volatile substances in the gas phase. In gas chromatography, the components of a sample are dissolved in a solvent and vaporized in order to separate the analytes by distributing the sample between two phases: a stationary phase and a mobile phase. The mobile phase is a chemically inert gas that serves to carry the molecules of the analyte through the heated column. Gas chromatography is one of the sole forms of chromatography that does not utilize the mobile phase for interacting with the analyte. The stationary phase is either a solid adsorbant, termed gas-solid chromatography (GSC), or a liquid on an inert support, termed gas-liquid chromatography (GLC).


In early 1900s, Gas chromatography (GC) was discovered by Mikhail Semenovich Tsvett as a separation technique to separate compounds. In organic chemistry, liquid-solid column chromatography is often used to separate organic compounds in solution. Among the various types of gas chromatography, gas-liquid chromatography is the method most commonly used to separate organic compounds. The combination of gas chromatography and mass spectrometry is an invaluable tool in the identification of molecules. A typical gas chromatograph consists of an injection port, a column, carrier gas flow control equipment, ovens and heaters for maintaining temperatures of the injection port and the column, an integrator chart recorder and a detector.

To separate the compounds in gas-liquid chromatography, a solution sample that contains organic compounds of interest is injected into the sample port where it will be vaporized. The vaporized samples that are injected are then carried by an inert gas, which is often used by helium or nitrogen. This inert gas goes through a glass column packed with silica that is coated with a liquid. Materials that are less soluble in the liquid will increase the result faster than the material with greater solubility.The purpose of this module is to  provide a better understanding on its separation and measurement techniques and its application.

In GLC, the liquid stationary phase is adsorbed onto a solid inert packing or immobilized on the capillary tubing walls.  The column is considered packed if the glass or metal column tubing is packed with small spherical inert supports.  The liquid phase adsorbs onto the surface of these beads in a thin layer.  In a capillary column, the tubing walls are coated with the stationary phase or an adsorbant layer, which is capable of supporting the liquid phase.  However, the method of GSC, has limited application in the laboratory and is rarely used due to severe peak tailing and the semi-permanent retention of polar compounds within the column.  Therefore, the method of gas-liquid chromatography is simply shortened to gas chromatography and will be referred to as such here.The purpose of this module is to provide a better understanding on its separation and measurement techniques and its application.


Sample Injection

A sample port is necessary for introducing the sample at the head of the column.  Modern injection techniques often employ the use of heated sample ports through which the sample can be injected and vaporized in a near simultaneous fashion.  A calibrated microsyringe is used to deliver a sample volume in the range of a few microliters through a rubber septum and into the vaporization chamber.  Most separations require only a small fraction of the initial sample volume and a sample splitter is used to direct excess sample to waste. Commercial gas chromatographs often allow for both split and splitless injections when alternating between packed columns and capillary columns.  The vaporization chamber is typically heated 50 °C above the lowest boiling point of the sample and subsequently mixed with the carrier gas to transport the sample into the column. 


Figure 1.  A cross-sectional view of a microflash vaporizer direct injector. 

Carrier Gas

The carrier gas plays an important role, and varies in the GC used. Carrier gas must be dry, free of oxygen and chemically inert mobile-phase employed in gas chromatography. Helium is most commonly used because it is safer than, but comprable to hydrogen in efficiency, has a larger range of flow rates and is compatible with many detectors.  Nitrogen, argon, and hydrogen are also used depending upon the desired performance and the detector being used.  Both hydrogen and helium, which are commonly used on most traditional detectors such as Flame Ionization(FID), thermal conductivity (TCD) and Electron capture (ECD), provide a shorter analysis time and lower elution temperatures of the sample due to higher flow rates and low molecular weight. For instance, hydrogen or helium as the carrier gas gives the highest sensitivity with TCD because the difference in thermal conductivity between the organic vapor and hydrogen/helium is greater than other carrier gas. Other detectors such as mass spectroscopy, uses nitrogen or argon which has a much better advantage than hydrogen or helium due to their higher molecular weights, in which improve vacuum pump efficiency.

All carrier gasses are available in pressurized tanks and pressure regulators, gages and flow meters are used to meticulously control the flow rate of the gas. Most gas supplies used should fall between 99.995% - 99.9995% purity range and contain a low levels (< 0.5 ppm) of oxygen and total hydrocarbons in the tank. The carrier gas system contains a molecular sieve to remove water and other impurities. Traps are another option to keep the system pure and optimum sensitive and removal traces of water and other contaminants.  A two stage pressure regulation is required to use to minimize the pressure surges and to monitor the flow rate of the gas. To monitor the flow rate of the gas a flow or pressure regulator was also require onto both tank and chromatograph gas inlet. This applies different gas type will use different type of regulator.The carrier gas is preheated and filtered with a molecular sieve to remove impurities and water prior to being introduced to the vaporization chamber. A carrier gas is typically required in GC system to flow through the injector and push the gaseous components of the sample onto the GC column, which leads to the detector ( see more detail in detector section). 


Figure 2. Gas Recommendations for Capillary Columns


Figure 3. Gas Recommendations for Packed Columns

Column Oven

The thermostatted oven serves to control the temperature of the column within a few tenths of a degree to conduct precise work.  The oven can be operated in two manners: isothermal programming or temperature programming.  In isothermal programming, the temperature of the column is held constant throughout the entire separation.  The optimum column temperature for isothermal operation is about the middle point of the boiling range of the sample.  However, isothermal programming works best only if the boiling point range of the sample is narrow.  If a low isothermal column temperature is used with a wide boiling point range, the low boiling fractions are well resolved but the high boiling fractions are slow to elute with extensive band broadening.  If the temperature is increased closer to the boiling points of the higher boiling components, the higher boiling components elute as sharp peaks but the lower boiling components elute so quickly there is no separation. 

In the temperature programming method, the column temperature is either increased continuously or in steps as the separation progresses.  This method is well suited to separating a mixture with a broad boiling point range.  The analysis begins at a low temperature to resolve the low boiling components and increases during the separation to resolve the less volatile, high boiling components of the sample.  Rates of 5-7 °C/minute are typical for temperature programming separations. 


Figure 3.  The effect of column temperature on the shape of the peaks.

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