Understanding the atmospheric pressure ionization of petroleum components: The effects of size, structure, and presence of heteroatoms

Sci Total Environ. 2016 Oct 15;568:1018-1025. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.06.044. Epub 2016 Jun 28.


Understanding the composition of crude oil and its changes with weathering is essential when assessing its provenience, fate, and toxicity. High-resolution mass spectrometry (HRMS) has provided the opportunity to address the complexity of crude oil by assigning molecular formulae, and sorting compounds into "classes" based on heteroatom content. However, factors such as suppression effects and discrimination towards certain components severely limit a truly comprehensive mass spectrometric characterization, and, despite the availability of increasingly better mass spectrometers, a complete characterization of oil still represents a major challenge. In order to fully comprehend the significance of class abundances, as well as the nature and identity of compounds detected, a good understanding of the ionization efficiency of the various compound classes is indispensable. The current study, therefore, analyzed model compounds typically found in crude oils by high-resolution mass spectrometry with atmospheric pressure photoionization (APPI), atmospheric pressure chemical ionization (APCI), and electrospray ionization (ESI), in order to provide a better understanding of benefits and drawbacks of each source. The findings indicate that, overall, APPI provides the best results, being able to ionize the broadest range of compounds, providing the best results with respect to ionization efficiencies, and exhibiting the least suppression effects. However, just like in the other two sources, in APPI several factors have shown to affect the ionization efficiency of petroleum model compounds. The main such factor is the presence or absence of functional groups that can be easily protonated/deprotonated, in addition to other factors such as size, methylation level, presence of heteroatoms, and ring structure. Overall, this study evidences the intrinsic limitations and benefits of each of the three sources, and should provide the fundamental knowledge required to expand the power of crude oil analysis by high-resolution mass spectrometry.

Keywords: APCI; APPI; ESI; High-resolution mass spectrometry; Model compounds; Petroleum.