Which Elemental Analysis Technique is right for you? Part 1

Trace element studies play an important role in environmental monitoring and industrial quality control in areas of foods, pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals, geology and mining, forensic investigations, clinical studies and power generation. The commonly accepted techniques providing acceptable levels of precision and accuracy are Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy, ICP – OES and ICP – MS. This article highlights the scope along with advantages and disadvantages of each of these techniques  in order to help you to take a a decision as to which techniques is most appropriate for your analysis.

The first points to consider before comparing the 3 techniques are:

  • Number of samples to be analyzed
  • Required sample digestion technique
  • Which elements are required to be analyzed and their concentration levels
  • Quantity of sample available for analysis
  • Requirement for reporting isotope ratios of species present
  • Initial cost and cost per analysis
  • Special training requirements for operation and analysis of data.
  • Cost of maintenance and availability of local service expertis

    1. Flame Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy


  • Lower price in comparison to ICP – OES and ICP – MS
  • Mature technique with large base of established methods
  • Analysis time per element is around 10 seconds
  • Concentration range sub- ppm – ppm levels
  • Simple to operate and not requiring specialized skills
  • Low cost of operation
  • Can handle up to 5% dissolved solid samples
  • Sample size requirement from about 5 to 8 ml


  • Analysis of elements is possible one at a time.
  • Only a small fraction of sample reaches the flame and residence time in flame is also small
  • Linear dynamic range around \(10^3\).
  • Dilutions would be necessary for concentrated solutions
  • Isotopic studies not possible
  • Unattended operation usually not possible

    2. Graphite Furnace Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy


  • Higher sensitivity of up to sub – ppb levels
  • Low sample volume requirement 0.2 – 1 ml
  • Unattended operation possible
  • Can handle higher concentration of dissolved solids up to around 10%


  • Cost higher than flame AAS and involves additional operational expenses
  • Analysis time per element is longer than flame AAS
  • More interferences than flame AAS

    3. ICP – OES


  • High detection limits from sub- ppb – ppm levels
  • Simultaneous analysis of more than 40 elements in each sample per minute
  • Cost higher than flame AAS but lower than ICP- MS
  • Large linear dynamic range \(-10^6\)
  • Unattended operation possible
  • Capacity to handle high dissolved solid samples up to 20%


  • Time of analysis 1 – 5 min/sample
  • More interferences than flame AAS
  • Isotopic studies not possible

    4. ICP- MS


  • Ultra trace detections up to sub-ppt levels possible
  • Linear dynamic range is highest up to \(10^8\)
  • Multi element analysis up to about 40 elements in same time as for ICP-OES analysis
  • Isotope ratio studies possible
  • Low sample volume consumption 0.02 – 2 ml / min


  • Higher initial cost and cost of operation
  • Can handle only up to 0.2% level of dissolved solids
  • Special operational skills requirement for good quality of results

In summary, as an analyst you will have to decide on which technique is ideal for your applications keeping budget availability in mind.

Part 2 of this discourse will look at comparison of all 3 techniques in terms of costs and cost benefits while Part 3 will compare the 2 ICP techniques only.


Dr. Deepak   Lab-training.com

Posted by Muyiwa Adebola

Muyiwa@aasnig.com, 07084594001

Scroll to Top Seraphinite AcceleratorOptimized by Seraphinite Accelerator
Turns on site high speed to be attractive for people and search engines.