In order to measure the characteristics of individual molecules, a mass spectrometer converts them to ions so that they can be moved about and manipulated by external electric and magnetic fields. The three essential functions of a mass spectrometer, and the associated components, are:
1. A small sample is ionized, usually to cations by loss of an electron. The Ion Source
2. The ions are sorted and separated according to their mass and charge. The Mass Analyzer
3. The separated ions are then measured, and the results displayed on a chart. The Detector
Because ions are very reactive and short-lived, their formation and manipulation must be conducted in a vacuum. Atmospheric pressure is around 760 torr (mm of mercury). The pressure under which ions may be handled is roughly 10-5 to 10-8 torr (less than a billionth of an atmosphere). Each of the three tasks listed above may be accomplished in different ways. In one common procedure, ionization is effected by a high energy beam of electrons, and ion separation is achieved by accelerating and focusing the ions in a beam, which is then bent by an external magnetic field. The ions are then detected electronically and the resulting information is stored and analyzed in a computer. A mass spectrometer operating in this fashion is outlined in the following diagram. The heart of the spectrometer is the ion source. Here molecules of the sample (black dots) are bombarded by electrons (light blue lines) issuing from a heated filament. This is called an EI (electron-impact) source. Gases and volatile liquid samples are allowed to leak into the ion source from a reservoir (as shown). Non-volatile solids and liquids may be introduced directly. Cations formed by the electron bombardment (red dots) are pushed away by a charged repeller plate (anions are attracted to it), and accelerated toward other electrodes, having slits through which the ions pass as a beam. Some of these ions fragment into smaller cations and neutral fragments. A perpendicular magnetic field deflects the ion beam in an arc whose radius is proportional to the mass of each ion. Lighter ions are deflected more than heavier ions. By varying the strength of the magnetic field, ions of different mass can be focused progressively on a detector fixed at the end of a curved tube (also under a high vacuum).
When a high energy electron collides with a molecule it often ionizes it by knocking away one of the molecular electrons (either bonding or non-bonding). This leaves behind a molecular ion(colored red in the following diagram). Residual energy from the collision may cause the molecular ion to fragment into neutral pieces (colored green) and smaller fragment ions (colored pink and orange). The molecular ion is a radical cation, but the fragment ions may either be radical cations (pink) or carbocations (orange), depending on the nature of the neutral fragment. An animated display of this ionization process will appear if you click on the ion source of the mass spectrometer diagram.