I have a degree in chemical engineering and remember having seen a inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer (ICP-MS) during the laboratory part of a chemistry course I took while at university, but it is many years ago. Now I would like to know what a typical output from a ICP-MS looks like and how I interpret the results.

There is no picture at the wikipedia page but some frequency domain like plots can be found with a Google search and I understand the Fourier transform and how it is used in number theory.

Are the ICP-MS results anything like the spectrum from the Fourier transform of some signal?


I am not an expert in ICP-MS, but an ICP-MS should be considered an ICP ion source coupled with a mass spectrometer. There are some key issues raised by the coupling between both instruments due to the high temperature of the ICP source as well as due to the fact that one wants to analyse atomic ions and remove any interfering molecular ions (mostly oxides, but other molecules and clusters are possible).

Therefore, to attempt an answer to your question, the standard output of an ICP-MS will be presented as a mass spectrum (intensity versus m/z or intensity versus amu). There are a couple of sample spectra in the brochures published by instrument makers, see for instance the Bruker brochure or a Thermo application note. How this mass spectrum is obtained from the detector will lead to the type of data that is acquired:

  • For a quadrupole mass filter, as well as for magnetic sector instruments, two modes of operation are possible. Either a single mass is selected, and therefore ont will only get a trace of the abundance of a given mass as a function of time (chromatography or on-line sample analysis). Otherwise the mass filter can be scanned, leading to a mass spectrum.
  • For time of flight detectors, the mass spectrum is built by the measurement of a flight time for an ion to reach the detector. Therefore the mass spectrum is converted from a time dependent signal to a spectrum.
  • Finally there have been some attempts to couple an ICP ion source with a Fourier transform mass spectrometer. As far as I know, these are not commercial instruments. In such instruments, the ions oscillate at m/z dependent frequencies, and the recorded image current is converted to a spectrum through the use of Fourier transform.

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