What Is Gas Chromatography

Gas chromatography (GC) is a common type of chromatography used in analytical chemistry for separating and analyzing compounds that can be vaporized without decomposition. Typical uses of GC include testing the purity of a particular substance, or separating the different components of a mixture (the relative amounts of such components can also be determined). In some situations, GC may help in identifying a compound. In preparative chromatography, GC can be used to prepare pure compounds from a mixture.

In gas chromatography, the mobile phase (or “moving phase”) is a carrier gas, usually an inert gas such as helium or an unreactive gas such as nitrogen. Helium remains the most commonly used carrier gas in about 90% of instruments although hydrogen is preferred for improved separations.

The stationary phase is a microscopic layer of liquid or polymer on an inert solid support, inside a piece of glass or metal tubing called a column (an homage to the fractionating column used in distillation). The instrument used to perform gas chromatography is called a gas chromatograph (or “aerograph”, “gas separator”).

A gas chromatography oven
A gas chromatography oven, open to show a capillary column

The gaseous compounds being analyzed interact with the walls of the column, which is coated with a stationary phase. This causes each compound to elute at a different time, known as the retention time of the compound. The comparison of retention times is what gives GC its analytical usefulness.

Gas chromatography is in principle similar to column chromatography (as well as other forms of chromatography, such as HPLC, TLC), but has several notable differences.

First, the process of separating the compounds in a mixture is carried out between a liquid stationary phase and a gas mobile phase, whereas in column chromatography the stationary phase is a solid and the mobile phase is a liquid. (Hence the full name of the procedure is “Gas–liquid chromatography”, referring to the mobile and stationary phases, respectively.)

Second, the column through which the gas phase passes is located in an oven where the temperature of the gas can be controlled, whereas column chromatography (typically) has no such temperature control.

Finally, the concentration of a compound in the gas phase is solely a function of the vapor pressure of the gas.

Applications Of Gas Chromatography

In general, substances that vaporize below 300 °C (and therefore are stable up to that temperature) can be measured quantitatively. The samples are also required to be salt-free; they should not contain ions. Very minute amounts of a substance can be measured, but it is often required that the sample must be measured in comparison to a sample containing the pure, suspected substance known as a reference standard.

Various temperature programs can be used to make the readings more meaningful; for example to differentiate between substances that behave similarly during the gas chromatography process.

Professionals working with GC analyze the content of a chemical product, for example in assuring the quality of products in the chemical industry; or measuring toxic substances in soil, air or water. GC is very accurate if used properly and can measure picomoles of a substance in a 1 ml liquid sample, or parts-per-billion concentrations in gaseous samples.

In practical courses at colleges, students sometimes get acquainted to the GC by studying the contents of Lavender oil or measuring the ethylene that is secreted by Nicotiana benthamiana plants after artificially injuring their leaves. These GC analyse hydrocarbons (C2-C40+). In a typical experiment, a packed column is used to separate the light gases, which are then detected with a TCD.

The hydrocarbons are separated using a capillary column and detected with a FID. A complication with light gas analyses that include H2 is that He, which is the most common and most sensitive inert carrier (sensitivity is proportional to molecular mass) has an almost identical thermal conductivity to hydrogen (it is the difference in thermal conductivity between two separate filaments in a Wheatstone Bridge type arrangement that shows when a component has been eluted). For this reason, dual TCD instruments used with a separate channel for hydrogen that uses nitrogen as a carrier are common.

Argon is often used when analysing gas phase chemistry reactions such as F-T synthesis so that a single carrier gas can be used rather than two separate ones. The sensitivity is reduced, but this is a trade off for simplicity in the gas supply.

Gas Chromatography is used extensively in forensic science. Disciplines as diverse as solid drug dose (pre-consumption form) identification and quantification, arson investigation, paint chip analysis, and toxicology cases, employ GC to identify and quantify various biological specimens and crime-scene evidence.

Pavia, L., Gary M. Lampman, George S. Kritz, Randall G. Engel (2006)
Introduction to Organic Laboratory Techniques
Thomson Brooks/Cole. pp. 797–817. ISBN 978-0-495-28069-9.

Grob, Robert L.; Barry, Eugene F. (2004)
Modern Practice of Gas Chromatography (4th Ed.)
John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-471-22983-4.


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