Characterisation of microplastics and unicellular algae in seawater by targeting carbon via single particle and single cell ICP-MS

Anal Chim Acta. 2021 Aug 22;1174:338737. doi: 10.1016/j.aca.2021.338737. Epub 2021 Jun 7.


The discharge of plastic waste and subsequent formation and global distribution of microplastics (MPs) has caused great concern and highlighted the need for dedicated methods to characterise MPs in complex environmental matrices like seawater. Single particle inductively coupled plasma - mass spectrometry (SP ICP-MS) is an elegant method for the rapid analysis of nano- and microparticles and to characterise number concentrations, mass, and size distributions. However, the analysis of carbon (C)-based microstructures such as MPs by SP ICP-MS is at an early stage. This paper investigates various strategies to improve figures of merit to detect and characterise MPs in complex matrices, such as seawater. Ten methods operating distinct acquisition modes with various collision/reaction gases, tandem MS (ICP-MS/MS) and targeting 12C or 13C were developed and compared for the analysis of polystyrene-based MPs standards in ultra-pure water and seawater. The robust analysis of MPs in seawater was accomplished by on-line aerosol dilution enabling repeatable size calibration while minimising drift effects. However, the direct analysis of seawater decreased ion transmission and required matrix-matching for accurate size calibration. Analysis of the 12C isotope instead of 13C improved the size detection limits (sDL) to 0.62 μm in ultra-pure water and to 0.96 μm in seawater. ICP-MS/MS methods decreased ion transmission but also reduced background signal and increased selectivity, particularly in the presence of spectral interferences. In the second part of this study, it was demonstrated that the developed methods were applicable for the analysis of C in unicellular organisms and allowed calibration of physical dimensions. This is relevant for the investigation and understanding of phenotypical traits associated, for example, with climate change resilience as well as oceanic C storage. SP/SC ICP-MS was employed to target five different intact Symbiodiniaceae algae strains with diverse life-histories in seawater and polystyrene-based MPs were used to calibrate cellular C masses, which were between 51 and 83 pg. The C mass distribution across the analysed unicellular cells was used for modelling cell sizes, which were in the range of 7.6 and 10.1 μm. Determined values were in line with values obtained with complementary techniques (Coulter-counting, total organic C analysis and microscopic analysis).

Keywords: Carbon storage; Microplastic analysis; SC ICP-MS; SP ICP-MS; Seawater analysis; Tandem ICP-MS.

MeSH terms

  • Carbon
  • Microplastics*
  • Plastics*
  • Seawater
  • Tandem Mass Spectrometry


  • Microplastics
  • Plastics
  • Carbon