Considerations of particle vaporization and analyte diffusion in single-particle inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry

Koon-Sing Ho, Kwok-On Lui, Kin-Ho Lee, Wing-Tat Chan*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

37 Citations (Scopus)


The intensity of individual gold nanoparticles with nominal diameters of 80, 100, 150, and 200 nm was measured using single-particle inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). Since the particles are not perfectly monodisperse, a distribution of ICP-MS intensity was obtained for each nominal diameter. The distribution of particle mass was determined from the transmission electron microscopy (TEM) image of the particles. The distribution of ICP-MS intensity and the distribution of particle mass for each nominal diameter were correlated to give a calibration curve. The calibration curves are linear, but the slope decreases as the nominal diameter increases. The reduced slope is probably due to a smaller degree of vaporization of the large particles.

In addition to the degree of particle vaporization, the rate of analyte diffusion in the ICP is an important factor that determines the measured ICP-MS intensity. Simulated ICP-MS intensity versus particle size was calculated using a simple computer program that accounts for the vaporization rate of the gold nanoparticles and the diffusion rate and degree of ionization of the gold atoms. The curvature of the simulated calibration curves changes with sampling depth because the effects of particle vaporization and analyte diffusion on the ICP-MS intensity are dependent on the residence time of the particle in the ICP. Calibration curves of four hypothetical particles representing the four combinations of high and low boiling points (2000 and 4000 K) and high and low analyte diffusion rates (atomic masses of 10 and 200 Da) were calculated to further illustrate the relative effects of particle vaporization and analyte diffusion. The simulated calibration curves show that the sensitivity of single-particle ICP-MS is smaller than that of the ICP-MS measurement of continuous flow of standard solutions by a factor of 2 or more. Calibration using continuous flow of standard solution is semi-quantitative at best.

An empirical equation is formulated for the estimation of the position of complete vaporization of a particle in the ICP. The equation takes into account the particle properties (diameter, density, boiling point, and molecular weight of the constituents of the particle) and the ICP operating parameters (ICP forward power and central channel gas flow rate). The proportional constant and exponents of the variables in the equation were solved using literature values of ICP operating conditions for single-particle inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) and inductively coupled plasma-atomic emission spectrometry (ICP-AES) measurements of 6 kinds of particles in 12 studies. The calculated position is a useful guide for the selection of sampling depth or observation height for ICP-MS and ICP-AES measurements of single particles as well as discrete particles in a flow, such as laser-ablated materials and airborne particulates.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)30-39
Number of pages10
JournalSpectrochimica Acta, Part B: Atomic Spectroscopy
Early online date12 Sept 2013
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2013

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Analytical Chemistry
  • Atomic and Molecular Physics, and Optics
  • Instrumentation
  • Spectroscopy

User-Defined Keywords

  • Analyte atom diffusion
  • ICP-MS
  • Nanoparticle
  • Particle vaporization
  • Single-particle


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