It is a phenomenon used in mass spectrometry to find the structural formula of a molecule through mass spectrum analysis, process called structural elucidation.
It can occur in the ion source (in-source fragmentation) where it is generally not a desired effect. Ion source conformation is an important criterium in the level of fragmentation observed.
Breakdown of a material to particles regardless of the mechanism and the size of fragments.
Note: Modified from ref. in order to remove size limitation.
Desired fragmentation is made in the collision zone (post-source fragmentation) of a tandem mass spectrometer. It is a part of gas phase ion chemistry and there are different types of mass fragmentation:
Schemes of fragmentation
The certain structures favour fragmentation the α-cleavage and the McLafferty rearrangement are two examples for the often observed fragmentations.
Other schemes includes Heterocyclic ring fission (HRF) or Retro Diels-Alder (RDA).