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An ionization mass spectrometer can come in many different forms for many different uses; however, all work on the same basic principles. A sample is placed in an ionization mass spectrometer, and its particles are electrically charged, changing them to ions. These ions are then sorted by their mass and measured, creating a spectrum that identifies all the chemical components of the sample. The ability to identify chemicals and their composition accurately is useful in many scientific disciplines, including geology, archeology, and understanding the chemical makeup of planets and stars. One of the most important uses of an ionization mass spectrometer is in medical research and treatment, where the device can identify traces of chemicals in the human body to diagnose illness and study the chemical effects of medications.
Scientists studying the Earth make use of mass spectrometers for a variety of purposes. In geology, accurate measurements of the components of ancient rocks can give insights into their age and the conditions that existed when they were formed. In weather studies, mass spectrometry can identify the exact levels of various gases in Arctic ice core samples, telling scientists the levels of greenhouse gases that existed in the Earth’s atmosphere over the course of tens of thousands of years. Scientists have even been able to use mass spectrometry to identify the remains of the massive meteor strike believed to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.
In studying our solar system, scientists have not only used the ionization mass spectrometer to study meteorite samples that have fallen here on Earth, but have also integrated the devices into spacecraft. The two Viking spacecraft sent to Mars in 1975 each possessed an on-board ionization mass spectrometer to search for chemical signs of life. The Huygens probe, which landed on Titan, Jupiter’s largest moon, in 2005, used an ionization mass spectrometer to study the moon’s atmosphere and surface composition.
The medical sciences make extensive use of ionization mass spectrometers. In research, they are used to identify chemicals in nature that may have medicinal uses and help understand how those substances interact with other chemicals in the human body. When an illness is being diagnosed, they are used to identify chemicals, such as toxins, which may be adversely affecting a patient. They are also used to identify proteins, enzymes, and other biological compounds present in the body that may give insight into what is causing a person’s illness.
Ionization mass spectrometers also have uses outside of medicine and research. They can be used to measure air quality in buildings or factories, to monitor product purity in industry, or even to identify alternate sources of raw materials. The ionization mass spectrometer continues to find new uses and applications literally anywhere that the knowledge of the exact chemical makeup of a substance is informative or beneficial.
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