This important and well-established application of nuclear magnetic resonance will serve to illustrate some of the novel aspects of this method. To begin with, the nmr spectrometer must be tuned to a specific nucleus, in this case the proton. The actual procedure for obtaining the spectrum varies, but the simplest is referred to as the continuous wave (CW) method. A typical CW-spectrometer is shown in the following diagram. A solution of the sample in a uniform 5 mm glass tube is oriented between the poles of a powerful magnet, and is spun to average any magnetic field variations, as well as tube imperfections. Radio frequency radiation of appropriate energy is broadcast into the sample from an antenna coil (colored red). A receiver coil surrounds the sample tube, and emission of absorbed rf energy is monitored by dedicated electronic devices and a computer. An nmr spectrum is acquired by varying or sweeping the magnetic field over a small range while observing the rf signal from the sample. An equally effective technique is to vary the frequency of the rf radiation while holding the external field constant.
For a description of the pulse Fourier transform technique, preferred by most spectroscopists over the older CW method, Click Here.
As an example, consider a sample of water in a 2.3487 T external magnetic field, irradiated by 100 MHz radiation. If the magnetic field is smoothly increased to 2.3488 T, the hydrogen nuclei of the water molecules will at some point absorb rf energy and a resonance signal will appear. An animation showing this may be activated by clicking the Show Field Sweep button. The field sweep will be repeated three times, and the resulting resonance trace is colored red. For visibility, the water proton signal displayed in the animation is much broader than it would be in an actual experiment.
Since protons all have the same magnetic moment, we might expect all hydrogen atoms to give resonance signals at the same field / frequency values. Fortunately for chemistry applications, this is not true. By clicking the Show Different Protons button under the diagram, a number of representative proton signals will be displayed over the same magnetic field range. It is not possible, of course, to examine isolated protons in the spectrometer described above; but from independent measurement and calculation it has been determined that a naked proton would resonate at a lower field strength than the nuclei of covalently bonded hydrogens. With the exception of water, chloroform and sulfuric acid, which are examined as liquids, all the other compounds are measured as gases.
Why should the proton nuclei in different compounds behave differently in the nmr experiment ?
The answer to this question lies with the electron(s) surrounding the proton in covalent compounds and ions. Since electrons are charged particles, they move in response to the external magnetic field (Bo) so as to generate a secondary field that opposes the much stronger applied field. This secondary field shields the nucleus from the applied field, so Bo must be increased in order to achieve resonance (absorption of rf energy). As illustrated in the drawing on the right, Bo must be increased to compensate for the induced shielding field. In the upper diagram, those compounds that give resonance signals at the higher field side of the diagram (CH4, HCl, HBr and HI) have proton nuclei that are more shielded than those on the lower field (left) side of the diagram.
The magnetic field range displayed in the above diagram is very small compared with the actual field strength (only about 0.0042%). It is customary to refer to small increments such as this in units of parts per million (ppm). The difference between 2.3487 T and 2.3488 T is therefore about 42 ppm. Instead of designating a range of nmr signals in terms of magnetic field differences (as above), it is more common to use a frequency scale, even though the spectrometer may operate by sweeping the magnetic field. Using this terminology, we would find that at 2.34 T the proton signals shown above extend over a 4,200 Hz range (for a 100 MHz rf frequency, 42 ppm is 4,200 Hz). Most organic compounds exhibit proton resonances that fall within a 12 ppm range (the shaded area), and it is therefore necessary to use very sensitive and precise spectrometers to resolve structurally distinct sets of hydrogen atoms within this narrow range. In this respect it might be noted that the detection of a part-per-million difference is equivalent to detecting a 1 millimeter difference in distances of 1 kilometer.