Introduction to Mass Spectrometry (MS)


Mass spectrometers use the difference in mass-to-charge ratio (m/e) of ionized atoms or molecules to separate them from each other. Mass spectrometry is therefore useful for quantitation of atoms or molecules and also for determining chemical and structural information about molecules. Molecules have distinctive fragmentation patterns that provide structural information to identify structural components.

The general operation of a mass spectrometer is:

  1. create gas-phase ions
  2. separate the ions in space or time based on their mass-to-charge ratio
  3. measure the quantity of ions of each mass-to-charge ratio

The ion separation power of a mass spectrometer is described by the resolution, which is defined as:
R = m / delta m,
where m is the ion mass and delta m is the difference in mass between two resolvable peaks in a mass spectrum. E.g., a mass spectrometer with a resolution of 1000 can resolve an ion with a m/e of 100.0 from an ion with an m/e of 100.1.


In general a mass spectrometer consists of an ion source, a mass-selective analyzer, and an ion detector. The magnetic-sector, quadrupole, and time-of-flight designs also require extraction and acceleration ion optics to transfer ions from the source region into the mass analyzer. The details of mass analyzer designs are discussed in the individual documents listed below. Basic descriptions of sample introduction/ionization and ion detection are discussed in separate documents on ionization methods and ion detectors, respectively.

Mass analyzer designs:

Further Information

/chem-ed/ms/ms-intro.htm, updated 11/3/96

Copyright © 1996 by Brian M. Tissue, all rights reserved.

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