Use of rapid reduced electric field switching to enhance compound specificity for proton transfer reaction-mass spectrometry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


  • Peter Watts
  • D Fraser Reich
  • Stephen J Mullock
  • Stuart Cairns
  • Peter Hickey
  • Matthew Brookes

External organisations

  • Kore Technology Ltd , Cambridgeshire Business Park, Ely, Cambridgeshire CB7 4EA, U.K.
  • Defence Science and Technology Laboratory


The high sensitivity of proton transfer reaction-mass spectrometry (PTR-MS) makes it a suitable analytical tool for detecting trace compounds. Its specificity is primarily determined by the accuracy of identifying the m/ z of the product ions specific to a particular compound. However, specificity can be enhanced by changing the product ions (concentrations and types) through modifying the reduced electric field. For current PTR-MS systems, this is not possible for trace compounds that would only be present in the reaction chamber of a PTR-MS for a short time (seconds). For such circumstances, it is necessary to change the reduce electric field swiftly if specificity enhancements are to be achieved. In this paper we demonstrate such a novel approach, which permits any compound that may only be present in the drift tube for seconds to be thoroughly investigated. Specifically, we have developed hardware and software which permits the reaction region's voltages to be rapidly switched at a frequency of 0.1-5 Hz. We show how this technique can be used to provide a higher confidence in the identification of compounds than is possible by keeping to one reduced electric field value through illustrating the detection of explosives. Although demonstrated for homeland security applications, this new technique has applications in other analytical areas and disciplines where rapid changes in a compound's concentration can occur, for example, in the Earth's atmosphere, plant emissions and in breath. Importantly, this adaptation provides a method for improved selectivity without expensive instrumental changes or the need for high mass resolution instruments.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5664-5670
Number of pages7
JournalAnalytical Chemistry
Issue number9
Early online date9 Apr 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2018