Use of proton transfer reaction time-of-flight mass spectrometry for the analytical detection of illicit and controlled prescription drugs at room temperature via direct headspace sampling

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


  • B Agarwal
  • F Petersson
  • S Juerschik
  • P Sulzer
  • A Jordan
  • TD Maerk
  • Peter Watts

Colleges, School and Institutes


The first reported use of proton transfer reaction time-of-flight mass spectrometry (PTR-TOF-MS) for the detection of a range of illicit and prescribed drugs is presented here. We describe the capabilities of PTR-TOF-MS to detect the following commonly used narcotics-ecstasy (N-methyl-3,4-methylenedioxyamphetamine), morphine, codeine, cocaine and heroin-by the direct sampling of the headspace above small solid quantities (approximately 50 mg) of the drugs placed in glass vials at room temperature, i.e. with no heating of the sample and no pre-concentration. We demonstrate in this paper the ability to identify the drugs, both illicit and prescribed, using PTR-TOF-MS through the accurate m/z assignment of the protonated parent molecule to the second decimal place. We have also included in this study measurements with an impure sample of heroin, containing typical substances found in "street" heroin, to illustrate the use of the technology for more "real-world" samples. Therefore, in a real-world complex chemical environment, a high level of confidence can be placed on the detection of drugs. Although the protonated parent is observed for all drugs, the reactant channel leading to this species is not the only one observed and neither is it necessarily the most dominant. Details on the observed fragmentation behaviour are discussed and compared to electrospray ionisation MSn studies available in the literature.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2631-2639
Number of pages9
JournalAnalytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2011


  • Illicit drugs, Morphine, Ecstasy, PTR-TOF-MS, Drug detection, Heroin, Cocaine, Codeine