Isotope abundance ratio measurements by inductively coupled plasma-sector field mass spectrometry
This tutorial reviews fundamental aspects of isotope abundance ratio measurement by inductively coupled plasma-sector field mass spectrometry (ICP-SFMS). After a synopsis of the scope of isotope abundance ratio measurement and a summary introduction to the factors affecting precision and accuracy, attention is turned to noise sources. Detailed theory behind Poisson or counting statistics and plasma flicker noise components is given, since much of the observed imprecision can be attributed to these sources. Using single collector instruments, ion beams from different isotopes are sampled in rapid sequence, and so ratioing of the signals will be subject to fluctuations derived from intensity variations, i.e., flicker noise. It is demonstrated that flicker noise can, under specified circumstances, become the limiting factor for the attainable precision. Furthermore, the practice of partitioning dwell times, ostensibly to optimize precision based on isotopic abundances and assumed Poisson statistics, is shown to be flawed and actually requires accounting for flicker noise. In addition to random uncertainty, various offset factors may contribute to systematic error in measured isotope abundance ratios. Two of these, namely mass scale shift and spectral interferences are ameliorated using ICP-SFMS. The former is eliminated when operating under conditions providing flat-topped peaks, such that the minor drift in mass calibration typical of the technique becomes inconsequential and the intensity remains the same. Isotope abundance ratio measurements are subject to three further important offset factors. First is abundance sensitivity, which quantifies the extent of peak tailing to neighboring masses and can present a considerable source of offset. Second is mass bias, resulting from the fact that all sector field devices exhibit increasing sensitivity with ion mass, and various empirical methods used to correct for this effect are compared and contrasted. Third is detector dead time, which affects mass spectrometers equipped with ion counting systems. Although a well-understood phenomenon, all current methods for determining the dead time on the basis of experimentally measured isotope abundance ratios are likely to yield biased estimates. Finally, the capabilities of ICP-SFMS for the determination of isotope abundance ratios are placed in perspective by making a brief comparison with other techniques.