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Atomic Absorption Spectrometry


Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy in analytical chemistry is a technique for determining the concentration of a particular metal element within a sample. Atomic absorption spectroscopy can be used to analyze the concentration of over 62 different metals in a solution. It uses the absorption of light to measure the concentration of gas-phase atoms. Since samples are usually liquids or solids, the analyte atoms or ions must be vaporized in a flame or graphite furnace. The atoms absorb ultraviolet or visible light and make transitions to higher electronic energy levels. The analyte concentration is determined from the amount of absorption. Applying the BeerLambert law directly in atomic absorption spectroscopy is difficult due to variations in the atomization efficiency from the sample matrix, and nonuniformity of concentration and path length of analyte atoms. Concentration measurements are usually determined from a working curve after calibrating the instrument with standards of known concentration. The technique makes use of the wavelengths of light specifically absorbed by an element. They correspond to the energies needed to promote electrons from one energy level to another, higher, energy level. It is so sensitive that it can measure down to parts per billion of a gram (g dm3) in a sample.


Atoms of different elements absorb different characteristic wavelengths of light. Analyzing a sample is to see if it contains a particular element (using light from that element). For example with lead, a lamp containing lead emits light from excited lead atoms that produce the right mix of wavelengths to be absorbed by any lead atoms from the sample. In this, the sample is atomized (converted into ground state free atoms in the vapour state) and a beam of electromagnetic radiation emitted from excited lead atoms is passed through the vaporized sample. Some of the radiation is absorbed by the lead atoms in the sample. The greater the number of atoms there is in the vapour, the more radiation is absorbed. The amount of light absorbed is proportional to the number of lead atoms. A calibration curve is constructed by running several samples of known lead concentration under the same conditions as the unknown. The amount the standard absorbs is compared with the calibration curve and this enables the calculation of the lead concentration in the unknown sample. Consequently an atomic absorption spectrometer needs the following three components: a light source; a sample cell to produce gaseous atoms; and a means of measuring the specific light absorbed.

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. Vaporizations the solid sample vaporizes to a gas. 3. Volatilization the compounds making up the sample are broken into free atoms.

The flame is arranged such that it is laterally long and not deep. The height of the flame must also be controlled by controlling the flow of the fuel mixture. A beam of light is focused through this flame at its longest axis onto a detector past the flame. The light that is focused into the flame is produced by a hollow cathode lamp. Inside the lamp is a cylindrical metal cathode containing the metal for excitation, and an anode. When a high voltage is applied across the anode and cathode, the metal atoms in the cathode are excited into producing light with a certain emission spectra. The type of hollow cathode tube depends on the metal being analyzed. For analyzing the concentration of copper in an ore, a copper cathode tube would be used, and likewise for any other metal being analyzed. The electrons of the atoms in the flame can be promoted to higher orbitals for an instant by absorbing a set quantity of energy. This amount of energy is specific to a particular electron transition in a particular element. As the quantity of energy put into the flame is known, and the quantity remaining at the other side can be measured, it is possible to calculate how many of these transitions took place, and thus get a signal that is proportional to the concentration of the element being measured.


Atomic absorption spectrometry has many uses in different areas of chemistry.

1. Clinical Analysis - Analyzing metals in biological fluids such as blood and urine.

2. Environmental Analysis - Monitoring our environment e.g. finding out the levels of various elements in rivers, seawater, drinking water, air, petrol and drinks such as wine, beer and fruit drinks.

3. Pharmaceuticals - In some pharmaceutical manufacturing processes, minute quantities of a catalyst used in the process (usually a metal) are sometimes present in the final product. By using AAS the amount of catalyst present can be determined.

4. Industry - Many raw materials are examined and AAS is widely used to check that the major elements are present and that toxic impurities are lower than specified eg in concrete, where calcium is a major constituent, the lead level should be low because it is toxic.

5. Mining - By using AAS the amount of metals such as gold in rocks can be determined to see whether it is worth mining the rocks to extract the gold.


1. http://www.galbraith.com/spectroscopy.htm

2. http://www.files.chem.vt.edu/chem-ed/spec/atomic/aa.html 3. www.kau.edu.sa/Files/13000 df

4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atomic_absorption_spectroscopy