High-precision continuous-flow isotope ratio mass spectrometry

Mass Spectrom Rev. Sep-Oct 1997;16(5):227-58. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1098-2787(1997)16:5<227::AID-MAS1>3.0.CO;2-J.


Although high-precision isotope determinations are routine in many areas of natural science, the instrument principles for their measurements have remained remarkably unchanged for four decades. The introduction of continuous-flow techniques to isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS) instrumentation has precipitated a rapid expansion in capabilities for high-precision measurement of C, N, O, S, and H isotopes in the 1990s. Elemental analyzers, based on the flash combustion of solid organic samples, are interfaced to IRMS to facilitate routine C and N isotopic analysis of unprocessed samples. Gas/liquid equilibrators have automated O and H isotopic analysis of water in untreated aqueous fluids as complex as urine. Automated cryogenic concentrators permit analysis at part-per-million concentrations in environmental samples. Capillary gas chromatography interfaced to IRMS via on-line microchemistry facilitates compound-specific isotope analysis (CSIA) for purified organic analytes of 1 nmol of C, N, or O. GC-based CSIA for hydrogen and liquid chromatography-based interfaces to IRMS have both been demonstrated, and continuing progress promises to bring these advances to routine use. Automated position-specific isotope analysis (PSIA) using noncatalytic pyrolysis has been shown to produce fragments without appreciable carbon scrambling or major isotopic fractionation, and shows great promise for intramolecular isotope ratio analysis. Finally, IRMS notation and useful elementary isotopic relationships derived from the fundamental mass balance equation are presented.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Mass Spectrometry / instrumentation
  • Mass Spectrometry / methods*