Analysis of complex particle mixtures by asymmetrical flow field-flow fractionation coupled to inductively coupled plasma time-of-flight mass spectrometry

Asymmetrical flow field-flow fractionation (AF4) hyphenated with inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) has been widely used to characterize metal containing particles. This study demonstrates the advantages of coupling AF4 with ICP-time-of-flight mass spectrometry (ICP-TOFMS) in standard and single particle modes to determine size distribution, elemental composition, and number concentration of composite particles. The coupled system was used to characterize two complex particle mixtures. The first mixture consisted of particles extracted from micro-alloyed steels with two size populations of different elemental composition. The second mixture consisted of particles extracted from soil spiked with various engineered nanoparticles (ENPs). The equivalent hydrodynamic sizes of individual micro-alloyed steel particles were up to 6 times larger than the sizes determined by single particle (sp)-ICP-TOFMS. The larger AF4 sizes were attributed to the presence of a surface coating, which is not reflected in the core size determined by sp-ICP-TOFMS. Two particle populations could not be separated by AF4 due to their broad size distributions but were resolved by sp-ICP-TOFMS using their unique elemental signatures. Multi-angle light scattering and ICP-TOFMS signals of soil suspensions increased with the spiked ENP concentrations. However, only after conducting full element screening and single particle fingerprinting by ICP-TOFMS could this increase be attributed to enhanced extraction efficiency of natural particles and the risk for false conclusions be eliminated. In this study, we describe how AF4 coupled to ICP-TOFMS can be applied to study complex samples of inorganic particles which contain organic compounds.