An improved miniature time-of-flight mass spectrometer has been developed in a continuing effort to minimize the sizes, weights, power demands, and costs of mass spectrometers for such diverse applications as measurement of concentrations of pollutants in the atmosphere, detecting poisonous gases in mines, and analyzing exhaust gases of automobiles.

Figure 1. This Miniature Time-of-Flight Mass Spectrometer utilizes charged-particle optics in conjunction with ion speeds smaller than those of similar prior instruments.

Advantageous characteristics of this mass spectrometer include the following:

  • It is simple and rugged.
  • Relative to prior mass spectrometers, it is inexpensive to build.
  • There is no need for precise alignment of its components.
  • Its mass range is practically unlimited.
  • Relative to prior mass spectrometers, it offers high sensitivity (ability to measure relative concentrations as small as parts per billion).
  • Its resolution is one dalton (one atomic mass unit).
  • An entire mass spectrum is recorded in a single pulse. (In a conventional mass spectrometer, a spectrum is recorded mass by mass.) The data-acquisition process takes only seconds.
  • It is a lightweight, low-power, portable instrument.
Figure 2. This Uncalibrated Mass Spectrum of air was acquired by use of the improved TOF-MS.

Although time-of-flight mass spectrometers (TOF-MSs) have been miniaturized previously, their performances have not been completely satisfactory. An inherent adverse effect of miniaturization of a TOF-MS is a loss of resolution caused by reduction of the length of its flight tube. In the present improved TOF-MS, the adverse effect of shortening the flight tube is counteracted by (1) using charged-particle optics to constrain ion trajectories to the flight-tube axis while (2) reducing ion velocities to increase ion flight times.

In the present improved TOF-MS, a stream of gas is generated by use of a hypodermic needle. The stream of gas is crossed by an energy-selected, pulsed beam of electrons (see Figure 1). The ions generated by impingement of the electrons on the gas atoms are then focused by three cylindrical electrostatic lenses, which constitute a segmented flight tube. After traveling along the flight tube, the ions enter a charged-particle detector. The output of the detector is fed to a counting circuit to obtain data on the counting rate as a function of time. Inasmuch as time of flight is directly proportional to the ion mass, a plot of the counting rate versus time of flight is equivalent to a mass spectrum (see Figure 2).

This work was done by Isik Kanik and Santosh Srivastava of Caltech for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.


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Miniature Focusing Time-of-Flight Mass Spectrometer

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This article first appeared in the June, 2005 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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