Capillary GC columns are capable of producing highly reproducible chromatograms provided right operational conditions are maintained and steps are taken from time to time to prevent damage and performance degradation.
The factors which can result in deterioration are
Fused silica columns break wherever there is a weak point in the polymide coating. The polymide coating protects the fragile but flexible fused silica tubing. The continuous heating and cooling of the oven, vibrations caused by the oven fan, and being wound on a circular cage all place stress on the tubing. Eventually breakage occurs at a weak point. Weak spots are created where the polymide coating is scratched or abraded. This usually occurs when a sharp point or edge is dragged over the tubing. Column hangers and tags, metal edges in the GC oven, column cutters, and miscellaneous items on the lab bench are just some of the common sources of sharp edges or points.
It is rare for a column to spontaneously break. Column manufacturing practices tend to expose any weak tubing and eliminate it from use in finished columns. Larger diameter columns are more prone to breakage. This means that greater care and prevention against breakage must be taken with 0.45-0.53 mm I.D. tubing than with 0.18-0.32 mm I.D. tubing.
A broken column is not always fatal. If a broken column was maintained at a high temperature either continuously or with multiple temperature program runs, damage to the column is very likely. The back half of the broken column has been exposed to oxygen at elevated temperatures which rapidly damages the stationary phase. The front half is fine since carrier gas flowed through this length of column. If a broken column has not been heated or only exposed to high temperatures or oxygen for a very short time, the back half has probably not suffered any significant damage. A union can be installed to repair a broken column. Any suitable union will work to rejoin the column. Problems with dead volume (peak tailing) may occur with improperly installed unions.
Exceeding a column’s upper temperature limit results in accelerated degradation of the stationary phase and tubing surface. This results in the premature onset of excessive column bleed, peak tailing for active compounds and/or loss of efficiency (resolution). Fortunately, thermal damage is a slower process, thus prolonged times above the temperature limit are required before significant damage occurs. Thermal damage is greatly accelerated in the presence of oxygen. Overheating a column with a leak or high oxygen levels in the carrier gas results in rapid and permanent column damage. Setting the GC’s maximum oven temperature at or only a few degrees above the column’s temperature limit is the best method to prevent thermal damage. This prevents the accidental overheating of the column. If a column is thermally damaged, it may still be functional. Remove the column from the detector. Heat the column for 8-16 hours at its isothermal temperature limit. Remove 10-15 cm from the detector end of the column. Reinstall the column and condition as usual. The column usually does not return to its original performance; however, it is often still functional. The life of the column will be reduced after thermal damage.
Oxygen is an enemy to most capillary GC columns. While no column damage occurs at or near ambient temperatures, severe damage occurs as the column temperature increases. In general, the temperature and oxygen concentration at which significant damage occurs is lower for polar stationary phases. It is constant exposure to oxygen that is the problem. Momentary exposure such as an injection of air or a very short duration septum nut removal is not a problem. A leak in the carrier gas flow path (e.g., gas lines, fittings, and injector) is the most common source of oxygen exposure. As the column is heated, very rapid degradation of the stationary phase occurs. This results in the premature onset of excessive column bleed, peak tailing for active compounds and/or loss of efficiency (resolution). These are the same symptoms as for thermal damage. Unfortunately, by the time oxygen damage is discovered, significant column damage has already occurred. In less severe cases, the column may still be functional but at a reduced performance level. In more severe cases, the column is irreversibly damaged. Maintaining an oxygen and leak free system is the best prevention against oxygen damage. Good GC system maintenance includes periodic leak checks of the gas lines and regulators, regular septa changes, using high quality carrier gases, installing and changing oxygen traps, and changing gas cylinders before they are completely empty.
In our next publication, we will treat two other causes; chemical damage and column contamination. Till then we encourage you to visit our social media platform for more information on laboratory