Electrospray ionization

Electrospray ionization (ESI) is a technique used in mass spectrometry to produce ions. It is especially useful in producing ions from macromolecules because it overcomes the propensity of these molecules to fragment when ionized.

In electrospray ionization, a liquid is pushed through a very small, charged and usually metal, capillary. This liquid contains the substance to be studied, the analyte, dissolved in a large amount of solvent, which is usually much more volatile than the analyte.The analyte exists as an ion in solution either in a protonated form or as an anion. Because like charges repel, the liquid pushes itself out of the capillary and forms an aerosol, a mist of small droplets about 10 μm across. The aerosol is at least partially produced by a process involving the formation of a Taylor cone and a jet from the tip of this cone. An uncharged carrier gas such as nitrogen is sometimes used to help nebulize the liquid and to help evaporate the neutral solvent in the droplets. As the solvent evaporates, the analyte molecules are forced closer together, repel each other and break up the droplets. This process is called Coulombic fission because it is driven by repulsive Coulombic forces between charged molecules. The process repeats until the analyte is free of solvent and is a lone ion. There is still debate about the exact mechanism of the process, particularly the last stage, when lone ions form. Lone ions move to the mass analyzer of a mass spectrometer.

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