Improved ATR-FTIR detection of hydrocarbons in water with semi-crystalline polyolefin coatings on ATR elements
In situ measurement of hydrocarbons in water is critical for assuring the safety and quality of drinking water and in environmental remediation activities such as the cleanup of oil spills. Thus, effective detection methods of hydrocarbons in aqueous environments are important and several methods have been used for this type of sensing, including spectroscopic techniques, fiber optic sensors, and chromatography. However, under aqueous conditions, small amounts of hydrocarbons are difficult to detect due to their low concentration in water and robust sensing of these types of compounds in an aqueous environment remains a challenging analytical task. Hydrophobic polymer coatings have been widely used to concentrate hydrocarbons for attenuated total reflection Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (ATR-FTIR) detection at the surface of an ATR crystal by preventing water molecules from penetrating into the polymer coating while absorbing hydrocarbons. However, in typical coating designs only thin films (<5 μm) can be applied onto the ATR sensor due to the decrease in detection limit and sensitivity to hydrocarbons with increasing film thickness. This paper demonstrates that a semi-crystalline linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE) polymer coating with thicker thickness (40 μm) can be applied effectively for in situ ATR-FTIR detection of hydrocarbons in aqueous solution. The ATR signal is enhanced by the polymer coating which swells in response to the hydrocarbons and prevents water accumulation at the IR detection interface. Coating the ATR element with a LLDPE film (crystallinity = 12%) reduced the detection time for various hydrocarbons, including toluene, benzene and chloroform. The detection limits and kinetics of the ATR-FTIR detection were not significantly altered when the thickness of the LLDPE coating was increased to improve its mechanical properties which represents a significant improvement from coatings published in the literature. The LLDPE coating described in this research has the potential to be applied as a sensor coating for rapid detection of hydrocarbon-based substances or non-polar biomolecules in aqueous environments.