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The world's leading PTR-MS company

Providing ultra-sensitive solutions for real-time trace gas analysis since 1998

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Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

We collect your questions related to the our technologies, products and our company. Here we answer them for you. If you cannot find what you are looking for please contact us!

Frequently Asked Questions

PTR-MS technology

 

PTR-MS instruments

 

Detectable substances

 

Selective Reagent Ionization - Mass Spectrometry (SRI-MS)

 

Performing a measurement

 

Software

 

Applications

 

Maintenance

 

Company

 

 

PTR-MS technology

What does the abbreviation "PTR-MS" stand for?

PTR-MS is the abbreviation for Proton Transfer Reaction - Mass Spectrometry, allowing for real-time measurement of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Originally developed by scientists at the Institut für Ionenphysik at the University of Innsbruck, Austria this technology has been commercialized by IONICON Analytik. Learn more...
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How does PTR-MS ionize the substances?

In a drift tube protonated water (H3O+) interacts with molecules that possess a higher proton affinity than water. This means that one proton switches from H3O+ to the molecule (M) and therefore produces M+H+. Learn more...
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How is mass separation of the ions done?

Customers may choose between a quadrupole mass filter in PTR-QMS series and a time-of-flight mass analyzer in PTR-TOFMS series systems. Compare advantages of quadrupole and time of flight here. The Selective Reagent Ionization - Mass Spectromtry (SRI-MS) technology allows for identification of even some isomers. With the new FastGC add-on IONICON instruments now have GC capabilities - chemical separation in combination with real-time measurements.
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What are the advantages of PTR-MS compared to conventional mass spectrometry?

PTR is a soft chemical ionization process, which means that in contrast to electron impact or charge transfer ionization the fragmentation rates can be kept very low. Therefore absolute concentrations can be derived immediately. In addition, common compounds of ambient air do not get ionized, which makes mass spectra easily interpretable and accounts for very low online detection limits in the pptv-range. Learn more...
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What are the advantages of PTR-MS compared to gas chromatography?

With PTR-MS, substances do not need any pretreatment and can be measured online, in real-time over a range of six orders of magnitude down to a minimum concentration of less than 1 pptv (depending on the model). Even fast GC models work with much longer time spans and are therefore considered as an "offline" method.  Learn more...
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What are the advantages of PTR-MS compared to SIFT-MS?

Unlike SIFT-MS, PTR-MS does not dilute low concentrated samples by any carrier gas and lose precursor ions in a mass filter between the source and the drift tube hence PTR-MS is much more sensitive, has a lower detection limit and does not need any gas supply (proton transfer from H3O+ ions). Our instruments are light-weight (i.e. the portable PTR-QMS 300 weights only 70 Kg) and space-saving which clearly puts us ahead of technologies like SIFT-MS. Learn more...
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How does PTR-MS compare to SIFT-MS, APCI, MS-e-noses and other related direct injection mass spectrometry methods?

PTR-MS is generally much more sensitive than SIFT-MS (according to the authors around two orders of magnitude). The “downside” of PTR-MS, providing only one type of precursor ions (H3O+, the most important type though) has been overcome by a technology we call Selective Reagent Ionization - Mass Spectrometry (SRI-MS), where H3O+, NO+ and O2+ can be produced in the IONICON ion source with even higher yields than SIFT-MS. Compared to APCI, a widely used technology, PTR-MS allows for more accurate quantification due to a controlled and very efficient ionization, offering higher sensitivity. PTR-MS is extremely versatile, used in various applications and is commercially available as IONICON’s product portfolio: ultra-sensitive quadrupole or high-resolution time-of-flight based systems.
Learn more...
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Where can I get detailed scientific information about PTR-MS theory?

There are various scientific articles on the physics behind PTR-MS (e.g. Lindinger et al, Int. J. Mass Spectrom. Ion Proc., 173/3 (1998) 191-241). View our publications database here.
Another excellent way to get detailed scientific information is the biennial PTR-MS conference and training seminar. Learn more...
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PTR-MS instruments

What is included in an IONICON PTR-MS package?

When you decide for a PTR-MS you will not only receive the instrument, but an ample package including a computer, comprehensive software package, detailed documentation, all needed cables and lines, toolkit and much more, so that you can start your work immediately. Moreover one of our or our partner's specialists will visit you for installation & on-site training.
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Are IONICON PTR-MS instruments portable?

As long as the instrument is turned off, it is highly portable and can be moved via mounted wheels or handrails (depending on the model). During operation, shocks should be avoided to prevent the turbo pumps from getting damaged. However, with special shock absorbing housings it is possible to use our PTR-MS devices in airplanes and other vehicles. Learn more about in-the-field environmental research. Our engineers can work out a solution for you!
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How does the inlet system look like?

We deliver our instruments fully equipped with a 1.2m inlet hose consisting of an internal inert PEEK capillary, heating (up to 180°C) and thermal insulation. The flow is adjustable between 50 and up to 1000 sccm via a digital mass flow controller. Customized inlet solutions (e.g. second inlet line, different lenghts or heating capacities, multiplexing systems)  are available too.
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Is the vacuum system already built in?

Yes! Several turbo molecular pumps and mambrane pumps (oil-free) are part of the system and controlled by the internal electronics. Compared to other analytical instruments, the noise level is very low. No external pumping station is necessary.
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Which consumables does the instrument need during operation?

The only consumable besides electric power is distilled water. An internal water reservoir has to be refilled approximately every 3-6 months. No carrier gases or other expensive consumables are needed. If you are using Selective Reagent Ionization - Mass Spectrometry (SRI) O2 and filtered air or NO need to be supplied for precursor ion generation. SRI+ users need Kr or Xe for reagent ion creation.
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Is it possible to have an IONICON instrument adapted to my needs?

Sure! Just contact us and our experts will be happy to suggest solutions so that your solution fits your needs in every way. We have experience in designing special products tailored to your needs. Learn more...
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Are there any interfaces for the control of external devices?

Yes! Each of our instruments has ample interfaces (please check the specifications of the instrument you are interested in). Additionally we offer interface adapters - the IONICON I/O box - with many analog in-/outputs as well as digital in-/outputs. The quantity of interfaces is scalable. Please contact us for more information.
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Is remote controlling possible?

Yes! Our PTR-MS instruments are completely computer controlled via Ethernet. Just connect the system to your LAN and you can remote control it from everywhere you like. For support purposes our staff uses and recommends Teamviewer as remote access tool. 
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How do I learn to operate a PTR-MS instrument?

Although operating a PTR-MS instrument is very simple and intuitive, we offer an installation & training package, where one of our experts will give you a training session upon delivery of the system directly at your site.
Additionally we cordially invite you to our biennial "hands-on PTR-MS" training course in the framework of the international PTR-MS conference. Individual training sessions are available on demand.
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Detectable substances

Which compounds can be detected with PTR-MS?

IONICON uses a soft ionization method based on proton transfer from H3O+ ions to all compounds with a higher proton affinity than water. Common constituents of air such as N2, O2, Ar, CO2 etc. have lower proton affinities than H2O and do therefore not interfere with the measurement. This is one of the main reasons for our market-leading low online detection limit for trace compounds in the range of a few pptv.

Most of the common VOCs have higher proton affinities than H2O and thus can be monitored and quantified down to single-digit pptv-levels.

With our latest development that offers the possibility to switch between multiple reagent ions, we are now able to significantly extend the number of compounds that can be analyzed with our instruments.
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What are VOCs?

VOCs are Volatile Organic Compounds. This means that they are carbon containing molecules that under normal conditions have high enough vapor pressures to significantly vaporize and enter the atmosphere. VOCs like acetone, acetaldehyde, methanol, ethanol, benzene, toluene, xylene and many more are of great importance in nearly every field of everyday life.

VOCs can be harmful, influence negatively the quality of products but can also be indicators for quality in the food industry, the semiconductors business and other production plants.
Learn more...
IONICON PTR-MS solutions can detect most of the common VOCs in very low concentrations (pptv-range).
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Is the molecule I am interested in measurable with the PTR-MS technology?

Please check the Proton Affinity (PA) of your desired molecule (e.g. in databases like the NIST chemistry webbook or ask our experts). If it is higher than the PA of water (165.2 kcal/mol) it is detectable. Learn more...
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Is it possible to test the PTR-MS performance for the substance I am interested in?

Yes! We are happy to invite you to our company site to give you the opportunity to test the PTR-MS technology directly with the substances you bring along. We call this: YOUR showcase. Together with our experts you can discover our products and make valuable experiments tailored to your application. We also offer analytical services, from single tests to whole studies. Just contact us and let us know how we can help.
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Is it possible to measure harmful substances without contaminating the lab air?

Yes! Just connect an appropriate line to the exhaust outlet of the instrument. The instrument's vacuum system may be contaminated though and special caution is necessary when services or maintenance shall be carried out. Please contact our experts if you have more questions or would like us help you with service and maintenance.
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Can liquid or solid samples be measured?

Every substance, no matter if solid or liquid, has a certain vapor pressure depending on its temperature. Therefore the substance is always also present in its gaseous form and can be measured as long as the concentration is above the detection limit. We are working on a system that is currently still experimental and will allow to measure liquids directly. Learn more about Direct Aqueous Injection (DAI) and have a look at this article:
S. Jürschik, A. Tani, P. Sulzer, S. Haidacher, A. Jordan, R. Schottkowsky, E. Hartungen, G. Hanel, H. Seehauser, L. Märk, T.D. Märk: Direct aqueous injection analysis of trace compounds in water with proton-transfer-reaction mass spectrometry (PTR-MS), International Journal of Mass Spectrometry 289 (2010), 173–176.
Link
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Can PTR-MS distinguish between isobars and isomers?

- Isobars, having the same nominal mass, but different sum formula: These compounds can be distinguished with one of our PTR-TOFMS series instruments, if the mass resolution is sufficient for the mass difference between the isobars.

- One substance fragments into another substance of interest, or two different substances braking up into the same fragment. As an example, if you have a linear chain of a hydrocarbon, e.g. Octane C8H18 and Nonane C9H20 they are only detectable with O2+. Due to the fact that ionization with O2+ is not as soft as ionization with H3O+ there will be more fragmentation. This may lead to both substances fragmenting into smaller hydrocarbon chains (C2Hx, C3Hx, C4Hx,...) which makes it very difficult to distinguish between these compounds. This could be also a problem for e.g. Tetrachloroethane C2Cl4H2 and Methylenechloride, which could both easily fragment into CHCl2.

- Different isomers (same sum formula) in a sample (e.g. 1-propanol and 2-propanol): they will be summed up on the same nominal mass, the detection limit and the calculated concentration is an aggregate of both substances. Recent IONICON developments allow to use a FastGC column or MCC together with a PTR-MS which enables chemical separation. Ask us for more information.

- Compounds having the same sum formula, but a different structure: e.g. 2-Heptenal and Cycloheptanone (C7H12O) where the 2-Heptenal is an aldehyde and Cycloheptanone is a ketone. These two substances can be distinguished using NO+ because aldehydes and ketones undergo different reactions with NO+. Therefore the substances are detected on different masses.
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Selective Reagent Ionization - Mass Spectrometry (SRI-MS)

What are the advantages of SRI-MS?

H3O+ is ideal for many applications as our customers have proven for more than a decade. In some cases however it can be useful to use more than one reagent ion in your PTR-MS. By using SRI isomeric VOC compounds can be separated and instantaneously quantified (the differentiation of isobaric compounds is already possible by using IONICON PTR-TOFMS series). NO+ is like H3O+ a soft ionizer, ionization occurs mainly through charge transfer, whereas O2+ is found to be a less soft chemical ionization agent and can be used where proton transfer from H3O+ does not work. Kr+ has an ionization energy of 14.0 eV which is well above all reagent ions utilized in PTR-MS instruments so far and allows for nearly all substances to be detectable. Learn more on SRI-MS.

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What is the time required for switching between the multiple precursor ions?

Once your instrument is SRI enabled, there is no hardware change required for switching between the SRI ionization modes. Some system parameters have to be changed. This is done via software and a cylinder of O2 and a charcoal filter for NO have to be attached to the instrument. Signals of the desired precursor ions are visible immediately and after approximately 10 seconds, measurements can start. After 30 seconds the signal should be stable.
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Is the switching between different precursor ions done automatically?

Yes. The software offers you the possibility to program sequences where the instrument is switching between different settings. The ionization mode can be changed automatically too.
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What is the consumption of gas in O2+ or NO+ mode?

Usually the flow into the ion source is between 5 and 10 sccm. This is equivalent to a consumption of gas (at atmospheric pressure) of around 0,3 to 0,6 liters per hour.
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Performing a measurement

Does the sample need any pretreatment (e.g. pre-concentration)?

No! The sample or air can be analyzed directly without the need of any pretreatment.
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What is the response time?

The fastest possible response time is < 100ms. Results are provided in real-time. The temporal resolution is enough for flux measurements.
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What is the detection threshold?

Depending on the model, the lowest measurable concentration is below 1 pptv (we have proven ppqv-range detection limits). Have a look at our product range and our dedicated PTR-MS sensitivity page.
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What is the detection range?

The detection range is linear from 10ppmv down to the detection threshold, which is five to six orders of magnitude depending on the model. Compare our products here. If your sample has VOCs in higher concentration that 10 ppmv we can propose special dilutions systems, allowing to accurately quantify even higher concentrations. Have a look at our customization page.
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Is high humidity content of the sample a problem?

No! High humidity or even changes in the humidity during a measurement do not cause a problem for PTR-MS. There is a very small minority of substances where actual detection limit we can reach is depending on humidity. Please have a look at the next FAQ for more details.
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Can Formaldehyde be measured with PTR-MS?

Yes! Formaldehyde has only a slightly higher proton affinity than water (hydronium ions are used to perform the proton transfer) and therefore back reactions are possible with water. This results in a somewhat higher limit of detection for formaldehyde and a minority of substances which are in the same proton affinity range than water. The reactions in this case are humidity depending.
There is another concern with regards to Formaldehyde: the mass filters (quadrupoles) in the the two systems PTR-QMS 300 and High Sensitivity PTR-QMS 500 have an influence to the detection limit of Formaldehyde. Formaldehyde has a molecular mass of 31 amu (protonated). Therefore it can happen that O2 (which is always present in our spectra because of the PTR-technology) gives a small background on mass 31 depending on the performance of the quadrupole. For the PTR-QMS 300 instrument this fact leads to a detection limit for formaldehyde of better than 10 ppbv depending on the instrument settings.
The High Sensitivity PTR-QMS 500 instrument has a much better performing quadrupole for separating different masses hence detection limits for formaldehyde lower than 0,5 ppbv are possible. In general we recommend time of flight based instruments with high mass resolution for such applications.
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Is a buffer or carrier gas needed?

No! PTR-MS uses ambient air as a buffer gas when operating with H3O+ ions. This means that when using PTR-MS your sample won't be diluted with a carrier gas which is one of the reasons for our market-leading limit of detection.
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Is continuous sampling possible?

Yes! You can monitor concentrations online and in real-time. There is a continuous flow of sampled air through the PTR-MS system that is analyzed immediately.
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Is it necessary to calibrate the instrument prior to every measurement?

Our instruments are calibrated carefully prior to delivery and do not need to be frequently recalibrated. For highly accurate results calibrations with gas standards are recommended from time to time. IONICON offers a range of sophisticated trace calibration systems, based on gas or liquid standards and zero air. Learn more on GCU and LCU calibration devices.
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How long does it take for the instrument to "warm up" prior to a measurement?

If the instrument is not in use it can be set to "stand-by" or "idle" mode for timescales of up to several weeks. In this mode the instrument is ready to start measurements within seconds. If the instrument was switched off for a longer period or the vacuum system has been ventilated, the system has to be pumped until an appropriate vacuum level is reached.
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Does the instrument need to heat up or cool down between measurements?

No! Measurements can be done continuously one after another.
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Does the instrument need to be supervised during a measurement?

No! Measurements (including e.g. switching of external valves) can be done fully automated. Various safety mechanisms take care that sensitive parts are shut down automatically. Remote control tools are available.
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Which unit is used for displaying data?

Depending on the user's preference, the PTR-MS software displays and saves values as raw data (counts per second or Ampere) and in absolute concentrations (ppbv or µg/kg).
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How high are the operating costs?

In operation, the PTR-MS only consumes electric power (max. 650-1.500W; depending on the model) and very small amounts of distilled water (approx. two bottles a year), so the operating costs are outstandingly low. For the use of other precursor ions, reagent gases have to be supplied in small quantities.
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Software

Is there any software included with an IONICON instrument?

Yes! There is an ample software package included, ranging from the operating system of the enclosed laptop or desktop computer to the mass analyzer software. In addition we enclose our PTR-MS software package that was programmed by our in-house software department. Depending on the instrument type you buy from us, you'll typically get the PTR-MS suite including operating software but also the PTR-MS Viewer tool allowing to perform post processing operations of PTR-TOFMS and PTR-QMS data.
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Will I get software updates?

Our in-house software department is continuously improving and adding new features to the PTR-MS software package. These updates are available online and free of charge for PTR-MS customers. Please visit our support page for more information.
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Is it possible to control external devices via the PTR-MS software?

Yes! Up to five external devices (e.g. electronic valves) can be controlled via the PTR-MS software. This allows e.g. automated switching between different samples during a long-term measurement. The PTR-MS software is undergoing continuous improvements and there other external devices such a certain multiplexing valves that can also be controlled with our software. Please ask if you have special requirements.
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Applications

What are common applications for PTR-MS instruments?

Our customers are active in atmospheric chemistry, in environmental research and trace gas analysis (e.g. emissions in urban and remote areas, indoor spaces, vehicles), food and flavor science (e.g. analysis of coffee, olive oil, butter, cheese, wine, herbal extracts and aromas). We also develop industrial VOC monitoring solutions (e.g. in waste incineration plant, chemical factories and production sites). Read more about some typical PTR-MS applications.

The IONICON blog frequently features stories about special applications.
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Are there scientific publications involving PTR-MS instruments available?

There is a comprehensive list of scientific publications available on our website. Go to our publication database.
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Maintenance

Does the instrument need daily or weekly maintenance?

No! PTR-MS instruments have exceptionally long maintenance intervals in the range of up to six months.
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Can IONICON perform the maintenance for me?

Yes! We offer maintenance contracts for our systems that cover the regular service work. We can propose very flexible service offers that are adapted to your budget. Our specialists do the maintenance work quickly and efficiently, ensuring that your system is configured and operated in optimal conditions. Learn more...
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How does after-sales service look like?

For us, customer care is not only words, it's a relationship that we take serious. Fast and competent answers to urgent questions via email or telephone, for ordering spare parts, software updates, suggestions how to solve complex problems, etc. go without saying. Read what our customers have to say about IONICON support here. If you have questions about an IONICON system or need help, please contact us.
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Company

Is it possible to visit the IONICON company site?

We would be happy to welcome you at our company site. Just contact us. Here you can find your way to our location
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Is it possible to get "hands-on experience" at the IONICON company site?

Yes! Bring your samples along with you or let us demonstrate our instruments to you in a real lab application situation. See what you can get here! Just write us an email or call us.

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Is there a PTR-MS distribution partner in my country?

You can find an up-to-date list of distribution partners on our website. If we are not locally represented in your country we sell and support our products directly from our company site in Austria. Learn more...
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Does IONICON participate in exhibitions in the near future?

IONICON participates in exhibitions and conferences frequently. Please check our events schedule for up-to-date information about upcoming exhibitions and conferences. We would be happy to meet you there.
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