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Mass spectrometry is used to determine the mass, and thus identity, of a sample molecule. Ionized molecules passing it through a strong magnetic field will have their trajectories deflected by an amount proportional to their mass to charge ratio (m/z). This m/z spectrum can then be used to identify the molecule by comparison to a vast database of known molecular m/z spectra. To accomplish this, a mass spectrometry experiment is broken down into three basic steps. First, the sample is ionized. (If the sample is already a gas, it can be directly ionized; if it is a liquid or solid it must first be vaporized before ionization.) The ions are next organized into a stream that is guided through the mass analyzer, where they are exposed to magnetic fields that deflect their trajectory based on their mass. This deflection is recorded by the mass detector. There are many varied ways to ionize your sample. The process of ionizing a molecule can also break that molecule into fragments, in many cases in predictable patterns based on bond strengths and various functional groups that can yield structural information about the sample molecule. Hard ionization methods tend to produce lots of fragmentation, while soft ionization methods result in much less fragmentation. Thus, the m/z spectra will reflect the masses of the ionized sample analyte as well as ionized fragments of that analyte, resulting in a unique “fingerprint” for that molecule. There are also multiple methods for perturbing the ions’ flight and detecting the ions. Combining different methods of ionization, deflection and detection make mass spectrometry a versatile technique with relevance across a broad range of scientific areas. (Credit: Fraser Tan)
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