Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy

Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy (AAS) is a technique used to determine the elemental makeup of a liquid or solution. It relies on the physical principle of light absorption and is a versatile and cost-efficient method for detecting the metallic elements present in a sample. AAS analysis is commonly used to detect contaminants and identify unknown compounds.

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What is AAS used for?

Atomic absorption spectroscopy is primarily used to detect specific metallic elements within a sample. For example, it is used in both food and pharmaceutical industries to detect toxic heavy metals and other contaminants in consumer products. It can be used to perform environmental analyses, including pollution monitoring and water analysis to determine mineral content.

AAS analysis is also used in mining and geological studies to characterize ore and mineral samples, which can help identify the amounts of valuable metals within the rock. It may even be used in biomedical studies to determine the concentrations of both wanted and unwanted metals in blood and other fluids.

How does atomic absorption spectroscopy work?

The principle of atomic absorption spectroscopy is based on the unique property of atoms to absorb specific wavelengths of light. These wavelengths will vary depending on the element of the atom in question. Therefore, if we pass a spectrum of light through a sample and record the wavelengths that are absorbed (i.e. which part of the spectrum does not make it through to the other side), we can determine which elements are present, and what concentrations they are in.

To obtain an atomic absorption spectrum, the sample must first be atomized. There are various ways of achieving this, but generally, this step of AAS analysis involves using a heat source, such as a flame, to break down the sample. To begin, the sample is dispersed as an aerosol, creating a suspension of tiny liquid droplets. The droplets are then exposed to the heat source, breaking them down into atomic form.

The atomized sample is exposed to various beams of light that pass through the gas and are picked up by a detector on the other side. By monitoring which wavelengths of light are absorbed, we can determine the elements that are present in the sample. The amount of light that is absorbed is directly linked to the amount of each element in the sample, and can therefore be used to determine the concentration of each element present.

Sample requirements and preparation

Regardless of the type of atomization, the sample must be in a form where it can be easily dispersed as an aerosol. In most cases, this means it will need to be in a solution. Therefore, solid samples must be dissolved in a suitable solvent before AAS analysis. Larger samples may require further breaking apart or grinding to ensure easy dissolution.

Advantages of using AAS

The primary advantage of AAS analysis is that it is a relatively straightforward analytical technique. This means that it can be performed quickly at a low cost, producing meaningful results faster than other, more complex methods. This gives the method a high throughput, meaning it is possible to test numerous samples in a relatively short timeframe.

Atomic absorption spectroscopy is also highly accurate and provides high sensitivity, being able to detect metallic elements in very small quantities. Its detection limit is not quite as low as that of atomic fluorescence spectroscopy, however, which makes the latter better suited for detecting contaminants at trace levels.

Limitations of AAS analysis

While AAS can provide the elemental composition of a sample, it cannot offer any information regarding chemical structure, chirality, or any other non-elemental analysis. Furthermore, due to the way they interact with light, most non-metals cannot be readily detected through AAS. It is, therefore, primarily used for detecting metal concentrations. 

The sample must either be in the form of a liquid or be dissolved before analysis, which may limit the method’s usage with certain insoluble compounds. Finally, AAS is a destructive technique, so any sample is broken down during atomization and cannot be recovered post-analysis.

Due to these limitations, AAS is not as commonly used today as it was in the past. More common contemporary elemental analysis methods include ICP-OES and ICP-MS.

Need an analysis?

If you are interested in atomic absorption spectroscopy or other ways to determine the elemental makeup of a sample, do not hesitate to contact our experts through the form below. You can also check out our selection of elemental analyses and proceed to order the analytical services you need on our webshop.

Suitable sample matrices

  • Aqueous solutions
  • Mineral solutions
  • Water samples
  • Blood and fluid samples

Ideal uses of AAS analysis

  • Environmental testing
  • Analysis of bodily fluids
  • Toxicology
  • Food and drink analysis
  • Forensic analysis

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Frequently asked questions

What is atomic absorption spectroscopy commonly used for?

Common applications of atomic absorption spectroscopy include the detection of impurities in food and pharmaceutical products, the determination of pollutants in water, and the detection of precious metals in ore.

What are the limitations of AAS analysis?

Only metallic elements can be detected with AAS. Analysis of solid samples is also complicated by the need to dissolve samples in a suitable solvent.

What is Measurlabs?

Measurlabs offers a variety of laboratory analyses for product developers and quality managers. We perform some of the analyses in our own lab, but mostly we outsource them to carefully selected partner laboratories. This way we can send each sample to the lab that is best suited for the purpose, and offer high-quality analyses with more than a thousand different methods to our clients.

How does the service work?

When you contact us through our contact form or by email, one of our specialists will take ownership of your case and answer your query. You get an offer with all the necessary details about the analysis, and can send your samples to the indicated address. We will then take care of sending your samples to the correct laboratories and write a clear report on the results for you.

How do I send my samples?

Samples are usually delivered to our laboratory via courier. Contact us for further details before sending samples.