What is Atomic Absorption Spectrometry?

Atomic Absorption Spectrometry (AAS) is a technique which is used for the analysis of quantities of elements present in a sample by measuring the absorbed radiation by the chemical element of interest.

This is done by measuring the spectra produced when the sample is excited by radiation. The atoms absorb ultraviolet or visible light and get excited to higher energy levels. Atomic absorption technique measures the amount of energy in the form of photons of light that are absorbed by the sample.

A detector measures the wavelengths of light transmitted by the sample, and compares them to the wavelengths which originally passed through the sample. A signal processor then integrates the changes in wavelength absorbed, which appear in the readout as peaks of energy absorption at discrete wavelengths.

The energy required for an electron to leave an atom is known as ionization energy and is specific to each and every element. When an electron moves from one energy level to another within the atom, a photon is emitted with energy E. Atoms of an element emit a characteristic spectral line. Every atom has its own distinct pattern of wavelengths at which it will absorb energy, due to the unique configuration of electrons in its outer shell.
This enables the qualitative analysis of a sample.

The concentration is calculated based on the Beer-Lambert law. Absorbance is directly proportional to the concentration of the analyte absorbed for the existing set of conditions. The concentration is usually determined from a calibration curve, obtained using standards of known concentration or certified reference materials (CRMs). However, applying the Beer-Lambert law directly in AAS is difficult due to:

variations in atomization efficiency from the sample matrix non-uniformity of concentration and path length of analyte atoms (in graphite furnace AA).

The chemical methods used are based on matter interactions, i.e. chemical reactions. For a long period of time these methods were essentially empirical, involving, in most cases, great experimental skills. In analytical chemistry, AAS is a technique used mostly for determining the concentration of a particular metal element within a sample. AAS can be used to analyse the concentration of over 62 different metals in a solution. Typically, the technique makes use of a flame to atomize the sample, but other atomizers, such as a graphite furnace, are also used. Three steps are involved in turning a liquid sample into an atomic gas:

  1. Desolvation – the liquid solvent is evaporated, and the dry sample remains;
  2. Vaporization – the solid sample vaporizes to a gas; and
  3. Volatilization – the compounds that compose the sample are broken into free atoms.

To measure how much of a given element is present in a sample, first of all , we must establish a basis for comparison using certified reference materials or known quantities of that element to produce a calibration curve.

To generate this curve, a specific wavelength is selected, and the detector (Usually Photomultiplier tube detectors are used) is set to measure only the energy transmitted at that wavelength. As the concentration of the target atom in the sample increases, the absorption will also increase proportionally.

A series of samples containing known concentrations of the element to be measured are analysed, and the corresponding absorbance, which is the inverse percentage of light transmitted, is recorded.

The measured absorption at each concentration is then plotted, so that a straight line can then be drawn between the resulting points. From this line, the concentration of the substance under investigation is extrapolated from the substance’s absorbance. The use of special light sources and the selection of specific wavelengths allow for the quantitative determination of individual components in a multi-element mixture.

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