Ion Exchange Chromatography- Definition, Principle, Parts, Steps, Uses
Chromatography is a family of related techniques for the separation of different molecules or components within a mixture using phase equilibrium partitioning. This means that the mixture is dissolved in a fluid solvent (gas or liquid) called the mobile phase, which carries it through a system (a column, a capillary tube, a plate, or a sheet) on which a material called the stationary phase is fixed. The molecules in the mixture interact differently with the mobile and stationary phases, resulting in their separation as they move along the system.
The purpose of chromatography can be either analytical or preparative. Analytical chromatography aims to identify and quantify the components of a complex mixture, while preparative chromatography seeks to isolate or purify target molecules for downstream uses. Chromatography can be used for various applications, such as protein purification, chemical analysis, water treatment, drug discovery, and forensic science.
There are many types of chromatography methods and techniques, depending on the characteristics of the molecules to be separated and the conditions of the mobile and stationary phases. Some of the most common types are liquid chromatography (LC), gas chromatography (GC), thin-layer chromatography (TLC), and ion exchange chromatography (IEC). In this article, we will focus on ion exchange chromatography, which is a process that allows the separation of ions and polar molecules based on their affinity to ion exchangers. We will discuss its definition, principle, parts, steps, uses, advantages, and limitations.
Ion exchange chromatography (IEC) is a type of chromatography that separates molecules based on their net charge and their affinity to ion exchangers. Ion exchangers are insoluble materials that have charged groups on their surface that can reversibly bind to oppositely charged ions in a solution.
There are two main types of ion exchangers: cationic and anionic. Cationic exchangers have negatively charged groups, such as carboxyl or sulfonic acid, and attract positively charged cations. Anionic exchangers have positively charged groups, such as ammonium or quaternary amine, and attract negatively charged anions.
Ion exchange chromatography can be used to separate and purify various kinds of charged molecules, such as proteins, amino acids, nucleotides, and inorganic ions. It can also be used for water analysis and quality control.
The basic steps of ion exchange chromatography are:
- The ion exchanger is packed into a column and equilibrated with a buffer solution that contains the eluent ion. The eluent ion is the ion that competes with the analyte ions for binding to the ion exchanger. For example, if the ion exchanger is cationic, the eluent ion could be sodium (Na+).
- The sample containing the analyte ions is injected onto the column. The analyte ions will bind to the ion exchanger according to their charge and affinity.
- The eluent solution is continuously pumped through the column, creating a flow that moves the analyte ions along the column. The analyte ions will be displaced by the eluent ions at different rates depending on their affinity to the ion exchanger. The analyte ions with lower affinity will elute faster than those with higher affinity.
- The eluted analyte ions are detected by a suitable detector, such as conductivity or UV-visible detector. The detector records a chromatogram that shows the peaks corresponding to different analyte ions.
- The eluted analyte ions can be collected for further analysis or use.
Ion exchange chromatography resins are composed of positively or negatively charged functional groups that are covalently bound to a solid matrix. Common matrices are cellulose, agarose, polymethacrylate, polystyrene, and polyacrylamide. The latter three matrices allow higher flow rates.
Depending on the charge of the functional groups, ion exchange resins can be classified into two types: cationic and anionic exchangers .
- Cationic exchangers possess negatively charged groups, such as carboxylate (COO-), sulfonate (SO3-), or phosphate (PO4-), and these will attract positively charged cations. These exchangers are also called “Acidic ion exchange” materials, because their negative charges result from the ionization of acidic groups.
- Anionic exchangers have positively charged groups, such as diethylaminoethyl (DEAE), quaternary aminoethyl (QAE), or quaternary ammonium (Q), and these will attract negatively charged anions. These are also called “Basic ion exchange” materials.
The choice of the ion exchanger depends on the charge of the molecule to be separated. To separate anions, an anionic exchanger is used; to separate cations, a cationic exchanger is used. Some examples of ion exchangers are given in the table below:
|QAE (Quaternary aminoethyl)
|Q (Quaternary ammonium)
Ion exchange chromatography is a type of chromatography that separates ions and polar molecules based on their affinity to ion exchangers. Ion exchangers are insoluble matrices that have charged groups covalently attached to their surface. These charged groups can attract and bind oppositely charged ions from the sample solution, and release them when the solution conditions change.
The principle of separation is thus by reversible exchange of ions between the target ions present in the sample solution and the ions present on the ion exchangers. The exchange of ions depends on factors such as the charge, size, shape and polarity of the ions, as well as the pH, ionic strength and composition of the eluent (the solvent used to carry the sample through the column).
There are two types of ion exchangers: cationic and anionic. Cationic exchangers have negatively charged groups on their surface, such as sulfonic acid or carboxylic acid, and can bind positively charged cations from the sample. Anionic exchangers have positively charged groups on their surface, such as quaternary ammonium or diethylaminoethyl, and can bind negatively charged anions from the sample.
The basic steps of ion exchange chromatography are:
- The column is filled with an ion exchanger that matches the type of ions to be separated. For example, if the sample contains anions, an anionic exchanger is used.
- The column is equilibrated with an eluent that has a suitable pH and ionic strength to allow the binding of the target ions to the ion exchanger. The eluent also contains a counter-ion that competes with the target ions for binding to the ion exchanger. For example, if an anionic exchanger is used, the eluent may contain chloride or nitrate as counter-ions.
- The sample containing the target ions is injected onto the column. As the sample flows through the column, some of the target ions will bind to the ion exchanger, while others will pass through depending on their affinity to the ion exchanger. The bound ions form a band or a zone on the column.
- The elution of the target ions is achieved by changing the eluent conditions, such as increasing the ionic strength, changing the pH or adding a specific eluent ion that displaces the target ions from the ion exchanger. The eluted ions are detected by a suitable detector, such as a conductivity detector or a UV-visible detector.
- The column is regenerated by washing it with a strong eluent that removes all bound ions from the ion exchanger. The column is then ready for another separation.
The following figure shows an example of an ion exchange chromatography separation of a mixture of four anions using an anionic exchanger.
| Column |
| filled |
| with |
The figure shows that chloride (Cl-) has the lowest affinity to the anionic exchanger and elutes first, followed by nitrite (NO2-), nitrate (NO3-) and sulfate (SO4(2-)), which has the highest affinity and elutes last.
Ion exchange chromatography can be used for both analytical and preparative purposes in various fields, such as biochemistry, environmental analysis, water treatment and quality control. It can separate almost any kind of charged molecule, including large proteins, small nucleotides and amino acids. However, it also has some limitations, such as requiring constant optimization of eluent conditions, being sensitive to changes in temperature and pH, and having limited resolution for closely related ions.
Ion exchange chromatography requires a set of instruments that can deliver a constant flow of the eluent, inject the sample, separate the ions on the column, suppress the background conductivity, detect the ions and record the data. The typical IC instrumentation includes:
- Pump: The IC pump is considered to be one of the most important components in the system which has to provide a continuous constant flow of the eluent through the IC injector, column, and detector. The pump should be able to handle high pressures (up to 4000 psi) and different types of eluents (aqueous or organic). The pump should also have a degassing system to remove dissolved gases from the eluent that may interfere with the separation or detection.
- Injector: Sample introduction can be accomplished in various ways. The simplest method is to use an injection valve. Liquid samples may be injected directly and solid samples need only to be dissolved in an appropriate solvent. Injectors should provide the possibility of injecting the liquid sample within the range of 0.1 to 100 ml of volume with high reproducibility and under high pressure.
- Columns: Depending on its ultimate use and area of application, the column material may be stainless steel, titanium, glass or an inert plastic such as PEEK. The column can vary in diameter from about 2mm to 5 cm and in length from 3 cm to 50 cm depending on whether it is to be used for normal analytical purposes, microanalysis, high speed analyses or preparative work. The column contains the ion exchange resin, which is the stationary phase that separates the ions based on their affinity to the charged functional groups. There are two types of ion exchangers: cationic and anionic. Cationic exchangers possess negatively charged groups that attract positively charged cations, while anionic exchangers have positively charged groups that attract negatively charged anions. The choice of the exchanger depends on the charge of the analyte ions at the pH of the eluent. A guard column is often placed before the separation column to protect it from particles or contaminants that may clog or damage it.
- Suppressor: The suppressor is a device that reduces the background conductivity of the eluent by converting it to water or a weak acid or base. This improves the sensitivity and selectivity of the conductivity detector by enhancing the signal-to-noise ratio. The suppressor can be either chemical or electrical. A chemical suppressor uses a second ion exchange resin that exchanges ions with the eluent ions, while an electrical suppressor uses an electric current to remove ions from the eluent.
- Detector: The most common detector for ion chromatography is the electrical conductivity detector, which measures the ability of ions to conduct electricity in solution. The conductivity detector consists of a cell with two electrodes that apply a voltage across a small volume of eluent containing the separated ions. The current that flows through the cell is proportional to the concentration and charge of the ions. Other detectors that can be used for ion chromatography include UV-visible, refractive index, amperometric, mass spectrometric and electrochemical detectors.
- Data system: The data system is used to control the operation of the IC system, collect and process the signals from the detector, and display and store the results. The data system can be either a pre-programmed computing integrator or a more sophisticated device such as a data station or minicomputer. The data system should have features such as peak identification, calibration, quantification, integration, baseline correction and report generation.
The general steps involved in ion exchange chromatography are as follows:
- Selection of the ion exchanger and the buffer. Depending on the type and charge of the analytes to be separated, an appropriate ion exchanger (cationic or anionic) and a suitable buffer (pH, ionic strength, composition) are chosen. The buffer should be compatible with both the ion exchanger and the detector, and should provide optimal conditions for the binding and elution of the analytes.
- Preparation of the column. The column is packed with the ion exchanger resin and equilibrated with the buffer. The resin should be free of air bubbles and contaminants, and should have a uniform particle size and porosity. The column dimensions (length, diameter, volume) and the flow rate of the buffer should be optimized for the desired resolution and speed of separation.
- Injection of the sample. A known volume of the sample solution containing the analytes of interest is injected into the column using a syringe, a valve, or an autosampler. The sample should be dissolved in a buffer that is similar to or identical to the one used for equilibration. The sample volume should be small enough to avoid overloading the column and causing peak broadening or distortion.
- Separation of the analytes. As the sample moves through the column, the analytes interact with the ion exchanger resin based on their charge, size, shape, and affinity. The analytes that have a stronger attraction to the resin will be retained longer on the column than those that have a weaker attraction. The separation can be achieved by using either an isocratic elution (constant buffer composition) or a gradient elution (changing buffer composition). The latter method is more effective for separating analytes with similar properties or resolving complex mixtures.
- Detection and quantification of the analytes. The eluent from the column is passed through a detector that measures a property of the analytes, such as conductivity, absorbance, fluorescence, or mass. The detector generates a signal that is proportional to the concentration of each analyte in the eluent. The signal is recorded as a chromatogram, which shows the retention time and peak area or height of each analyte. The retention time can be used to identify the analytes based on their known or expected behavior on the column. The peak area or height can be used to quantify the analytes based on their calibration curves or standard solutions.
- Regeneration of the column. After each run, the column is regenerated by washing it with a solution that removes any residual analytes or contaminants from the resin. This restores the original charge and capacity of the ion exchanger and prepares it for the next run.
Ion exchange chromatography has a wide range of applications in various fields of science and industry. Some of the most common and important applications are:
- Biochemistry and biotechnology: Ion exchange chromatography is widely used for the separation, purification and analysis of biomolecules such as proteins, peptides, nucleic acids, amino acids, vitamins and hormones. It can also be used for the removal of contaminants such as endotoxins, salts, metals and detergents from biological samples. Ion exchange chromatography is essential for the production of recombinant proteins, monoclonal antibodies, vaccines and other biopharmaceuticals.
- Clinical and pharmaceutical: Ion exchange chromatography is used for the analysis of drugs, metabolites, hormones and other biomarkers in clinical samples such as blood, urine, saliva and tissue. It can also be used for the quality control and stability testing of pharmaceutical products such as antibiotics, steroids, analgesics and antihistamines. Ion exchange chromatography can help to identify and quantify impurities, degradation products and adulterants in drugs.
- Environmental and food: Ion exchange chromatography is used for the detection and determination of various pollutants, toxins and nutrients in environmental and food samples such as water, soil, air, plants, fruits, vegetables, dairy products and beverages. It can also be used for the removal of harmful substances such as heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides and nitrates from water and food. Ion exchange chromatography can help to monitor and ensure the safety and quality of food and water.
- Industrial and chemical: Ion exchange chromatography is used for the separation and recovery of valuable metals, catalysts, acids, bases and salts from industrial processes such as mining, metallurgy, electroplating, nuclear power generation and chemical synthesis. It can also be used for the purification of organic solvents, oils, fuels and lubricants. Ion exchange chromatography can help to optimize and improve the efficiency and profitability of industrial operations.
Ion exchange chromatography (IEC) has several advantages that make it a widely used and versatile technique for the separation and analysis of ions and polar molecules. Some of these advantages are:
- High selectivity: IEC can separate ions and molecules based on their charge, size, shape and affinity to the ion exchanger. This allows for the resolution of complex mixtures of similar or closely related compounds, such as amino acids, nucleotides, proteins, peptides and carbohydrates.
- High sensitivity: IEC can detect very low concentrations of ions and molecules in the sample, as low as parts per billion (ppb) or even parts per trillion (ppt). This is because the conductivity detector used in IEC can measure small changes in the electrical conductivity of the eluent as the analytes pass through it. Moreover, IEC can be coupled with other detection methods, such as ultraviolet (UV), fluorescence, mass spectrometry (MS) or nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), to enhance the sensitivity and specificity of the analysis.
- High capacity: IEC can handle large volumes of sample and eluent without compromising the efficiency and resolution of the separation. This is because the ion exchangers have a high loading capacity, meaning that they can bind a large amount of analytes per unit mass or volume of the stationary phase. This also reduces the cost and waste generation of the technique.
- High flexibility: IEC can be easily modified and optimized to suit different analytical needs and objectives. For example, the choice of the ion exchanger, the eluent composition, the pH, the temperature, the flow rate and the column dimensions can be varied to achieve the desired separation conditions. Furthermore, IEC can be combined with other chromatographic techniques, such as size exclusion chromatography (SEC), reversed phase chromatography (RPC) or hydrophobic interaction chromatography (HIC), to achieve multidimensional separations of complex samples.
- High reproducibility: IEC can produce consistent and reliable results when performed under controlled and standardized conditions. This is because the ion exchangers are stable and durable materials that do not undergo significant degradation or contamination over time. Moreover, IEC is a relatively simple and straightforward technique that does not require complex sample preparation or manipulation.
Despite its many advantages, ion exchange chromatography also has some limitations that need to be considered. Some of the limitations are:
- Selectivity: Ion exchange chromatography relies on the difference in charge and affinity of the analytes to the ion exchangers. However, some analytes may have similar or equal charge and affinity, making them difficult to separate. For example, some amino acids have the same net charge at a given pH and may co-elute. To overcome this problem, gradient elution or mixed-mode chromatography can be used to increase the selectivity.
- Capacity: Ion exchange chromatography has a limited capacity to bind analytes, depending on the amount and type of ion exchangers in the column. When the capacity is exceeded, the analytes may not bind to the column or may be displaced by other analytes with higher affinity. This can result in poor resolution or loss of analytes. To avoid this problem, the sample size and concentration should be optimized and the column should be regenerated frequently.
- Stability: Ion exchange chromatography requires the use of buffers and salts to control the pH and ionic strength of the mobile phase. These can affect the stability of the ion exchangers and the analytes over time. For example, some ion exchangers may degrade or lose their charge under acidic or alkaline conditions. Some analytes may also undergo chemical or biological degradation or modification in the presence of buffers or salts. To prevent this problem, the pH and ionic strength should be carefully selected and monitored, and the column and sample should be stored properly.
- Reproducibility: Ion exchange chromatography is sensitive to variations in experimental conditions, such as temperature, flow rate, buffer composition, column age and quality. These can affect the retention time, peak shape and resolution of the analytes. To ensure reproducibility, the experimental conditions should be standardized and controlled, and the column performance should be checked regularly.
These are some of the limitations of ion exchange chromatography that should be taken into account when using this technique. However, with proper optimization and troubleshooting, ion exchange chromatography can still provide reliable and efficient separation of charged molecules.
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