Metal cation detection in positive ion mode electrospray ionization mass spectrometry using a tetracationic salt as a gas-phase ion-pairing agent: Evaluation of the effect of chelating agents on detection sensitivity


D. W. Armstrong, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Texas at Arlington, Arlington, TX 76019, USA.




The detection of metal cations continues to be essential in many scientific and industrial areas of interest. The most common electrospray ionization mass spectrometry (ESI-MS) approach involves chelating the metal ions and detecting the organometallic complex in the negative ion mode. However, it is well known that negative ion mode ESI-MS is generally less sensitive than the positive ion mode. To achieve greater sensitivity, it is necessary to examine the feasibility of detecting the chelated metal cations in positive ion mode ESI-MS.


Since highly solvated native metal cations have relatively low ionization efficiency in ESI-MS, and can be difficult to detect in the positive ion mode, a tetracationic ion-pairing agent was added to form a complex with the negatively charged metal chelate. The use of the ion-pairing agent leads to the generation of an overall positively charged complex, which can be detected at higher m/z values in the positive ion mode by electrospray ionization linear quadrupole ion trap mass spectrometry.


Thirteen chelating agents with diverse structures were evaluated in this study. The nature of the chelating agent played as important a role as was previously determined for cationic pairing agents. The detection limits of six metal cations reached sub-picogram levels and significant improvements were observed when compared to negative ion mode detection where the metal-chelates were monitored without adding the ion-pairing reagent (IPR). Also, selective reaction monitoring (SRM) analyses were performed on the ternary complexes, which improved detection limits by one to three orders of magnitude.


With this method it was possible to analyze the metal cations in the positive ion mode ESI-MS with the advantage of speed, sensitivity and selectivity. The optimum solution pH for this type of analysis is 5–7. Tandem mass spectrometry (MS/MS) further increases the sensitivity. Speciation is straightforward making this a broadly useful approach for the analysis of metal ions. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.