Electron ionization (EI, formerly known as electron impact) is an ionization method in which energetic electrons interact with gas phase atoms or molecules to produce ions. This technique is widely used in mass spectrometry, particularly for gases and volatile organic molecules.
Principle of operation
where M is the analyte molecule being ionized, e− is the electron and M+• is the resulting ion.
In an EI ion source, electrons are produced through thermionic emission by heating a wire filament that has electric current running through it. The electrons are accelerated to 70 eV in the region between the filament and the entrance to the ion source block. The accelerated electrons are then concentrated into a beam by being attracted to the trap electrode. The sample under investigation which contains the neutral molecules is introduced to the ion source in a perpendicular direction to the electron beam. Close passage of highly energetic electrons, referred to as a hard ionization source, causes large fluctuations in the electric field around the neutral molecules and induces ionization and fragmentation. The radical cation products are then directed towards the mass analyzer by a repeller electrode. The ionization process often follows predictable cleavage reactions that give rise to fragment ions which, following detection and signal processing, convey structural information about the analyte.
The ionization efficiency and production of fragment ions depends strongly on the chemistry of the analyte and the energy of the electrons. At low energies (around 20 eV), the interactions between the electrons and the analyte molecules do not transfer enough energy to cause ionization. At around 70 eV, the de Broglie wavelength of the electrons matches the length of typical bonds in organic molecules (about 0.14 nm) and energy transfer to organic analyte molecules is maximized, leading to the strongest possible ionization and fragmentation. Under these conditions, about 1 in 1000 analyte molecules in the source are ionized. At higher energies, the de Broglie wavelength of the electrons becomes smaller than the bond lengths in typical analytes; the molecules then become "transparent" to the electrons and ionization efficiency decreases.
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