It falls within the scope of analytical chemistry, and is specific to the elements a researcher is looking for in a sample. For example, when it comes to organic chemistry, EA almost always refers to CHNS or CHNS/O analysis. That is, analysis of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and sulfur. In the case of “O”, the analysis includes oxygen.
The substance that is being observed, identified, and measured is referred to as an analyte. Both qualitative and quantitative methods are used in EA to determine the composition of a sample. It represents an important step in a variety of analytical workflows many laboratories use today.
Elemental analyzers refer to the devices that perform these analyses. They are designed to find elemental compositions of unknown substances by taking the material—whether it is organic or inorganic material—and converting it into simpler, known compounds. An example of this method of characterization is analyzing an organic compound for the presence of carbon and hydrogen. The unknown organic compound is altered through combustion and the resulting particles are examined and weighted to determine their composition by mass.
Though common, combustion is not the only method used to determine a material’s elemental makeup. Chemicals and radiation are two other methods that are well known in the quantitative and qualitative determination of an element. Elemental analyzers can be organized by which type of element is being analyzed or by how much of a specific element is in a substance. EA is used in a variety of application fields:
Analyzing the full range of elements present in a sample originally required laboratories to invest in multiple elemental analyzers. This was due to the fact that carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulfur and oxygen analysis conventionally could not be carried out within one integrated instrument.
However, thanks to manufacturers’ efforts, present day devices are capable of detecting and measuring numerous elements in a singular method as well as combinations of many elements.
With integrated and accurate analytical instruments now more readily available, sample preparation and data acquisition time has been reduced. Automation has played a vital role as well, providing increased efficiency through the use of autosamplers and other automated features. Additionally, new bench-top configurations have saved precious lab space.
High-quality organic elemental analysis requires an analyzer that provides precision and cost-effectiveness for quantification of organic elements such as carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulfur (CHNS), as well as oxygen (CHNS/O).
CHNS/O or CHNS analysis can provide a quick and inexpensive method to find sample purity and, in combination with technologies such as mass spectroscopy and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), can be used for the characterization of those various compounds.
Other analysis examples include simply carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen (CHN). Single compound analyzers are available as well, such as nitrogen analyzers.
Knowing which elements you’re going to analyze and which devices available on the market are capable of doing what is an important step in procuring inorganic and organic elemental analyzers.
This process involves the quantitative analysis of chemical elements of material using spectroanalytical methods. AAS observes how optical radiation, or light, interacts with an analyzed sample. This technique is effective because free atoms absorb light at specific frequencies or wavelengths depending on their element. Before analysis can occur, the medium must first be atomized using the spectrometer. The most common methods for this are flame and electrothermal atomizers.
Also known as Lassaigne’s test, this method looks for the presence of halogen, nitrogen, or sulfur in an organic compound. Consisting of placing the substance into a container with sodium in it and applying heat to it until the two different substances fuse together, the resulting intermixed material is then plunged into pure water and the existence of foreign substances can be detected.
If the resulting mixture produced sodium halide, sodium cyanide, ferric ferrocyanide, sodium sulfide, or sodium thiocyanate the tested sample can be said to have nitrogen, sulfur, or halogen.
A chemical method for quantitative discernment of elemental sulfur, halogen, chlorine, and nitrogen in a sample. This method involves combustion analysis to determine what elements are in a substance. Conducted in an Erlenmeyer flask, the material is wrapped in attached to a stopper. Some absorption solution is poured into the container and it is filled with oxygen, the wrapped material is lit and the stopper is used to quickly seal the flask.
The resulting solvent can then be tested chemically to establish the presence of other elements. This process is also known as Schöniger flask test or the oxygen flask method.
EA can be performed using X-ray fluorescence to determine the elemental composition of solid substances. A beam of x-rays strikes the surface of the sample and a core electron is then ejected from the atom that absorbed the x-ray photon. When an outer electron falls into the hole created by the ejected electron, it gives off energy in the form of light.
This light is called fluorescence and a characteristic pattern exists for each element. Historically, different types of x-ray fluorescence lines are observed and labeled as such:
Some elemental analyzers utilize thermal conductivity detectors to determine the properties of an analyte. Most commonly seen in gas chromatography, these universal, nondestructive, concentration-sensitive detectors respond to the difference in thermal conductivity of the carrier gas and the carrier gas containing the sample. This principle of detection is based on the fact that the analytes will typically have a lower thermal conductivity than the carrier gas mixture.
The final result produces a series of peaks for each analyte, which is correlated with the absolute quantity of the element via calibrations. The calibrations relate variations in the integrated detector signal with absolute element content for samples of known weight and composition.
EA requires a number of consumables, from aluminum capsules, chemical reagents and reagent kits, to flat tin disks and combustion, scrubber, or reduction tubes. Combustion Calibration Standards are also widely used to ensure your EA device is calibrated correctly.
There are several manufacturers that produce high-quality consumables for all your elemental analysis needs, including EA consumables, PerkinElmer, and OEA Labs Ltd.
Element Analysis has been a useful scientific technique for a long time. Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, an 18th-century French chemist, is considered the father of quantitative elemental analysis. Before Lavoisier chemistry was explained with qualitative observations like the idea that phlogiston, a fire quality, was what left a material once it was burned which is why there is less of it.
Through a series of carefully measured experiments, Lavoisier proved that when combusted chemicals combine with their surroundings to form new mixtures of solids, gasses or liquids. Specifically, he was able to deduce that oxygen, when combined with normal air would produce water, concluding that water was actually a composite of hydrogen and oxygen. He would be a primary figure in the chemical revolution championing the study of chemistry through quantitative means.
Today, EA is being used in biomedical, environmental, chemical, petrochemical, and pharmaceutical fields. More recently it has found use beyond normal STEM sciences. Anthropologists, archeologists, and general historians are now utilizing these techniques to better understand the history of humans around the world.
The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, one of the largest museums in the world, has an entire lab dedicated to these methods of study. In 2015, an article was published about the discovery of a black rock found in the Scladina Caves in Belgium linked to Neanderthal culture. Using the Field Museum’s EA labs the team discovered that the rocks must have been transported there from much further away by Neanderthals for culturally significant reasons.
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