Environmental Trace Analysis

The emission of hazardous and persistent contaminants like synthetic organic compounds, heavy metals, and radioactive materials is a major threat for environmental and human health. Our goal is to obtain insights into these pressing environmental challenges and inform solutions. We use quantitative and qualitative approaches to explore the fate of organic and inorganic trace compounds at the molecular scale and to decipher key processes in aquatic and terrestrial environments. At CeMESS, our methods cover the full analytical circle: starting from sample collection in the field, to sample preparation (digestion, extraction, and preconcentration), to controlled laboratory experiments and advanced data analysis.

Gas and liquid chromatographic separation, paired with triple quadrupole tandem mass spectrometry, is a cornerstone of our methodology, allowing for the precise quantification of a wide range of organic pollutants.

Our methods, at a glance

  • Chromatographic separation with mass spectrometry for organic pollutant analysis
  • High-resolution mass spectrometry for complex organic chemical identification
  • ICP-OES for high-throughput elemental analysis
  • ICP-MS and ICP-MS/MS for ultra-trace elemental analysis

Accelerated solvent extraction: Organic pollutants are extracted from soil or sediment samples at high temperature and pressure. © Gabriel Sigmund

These pollutants include everything from conventional non-polar substances leaching from plastics to chemicals of emerging concern such as tire additives, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and PFASs. Complementarily, we use liquid chromatography coupled with high-resolution mass spectrometry to detect and identify unknown organic chemicals in complex environmental samples. This approach is particularly valuable for deciphering biotransformation pathways of pollutants, also in conjunction with studies on the involved enzymes.

For elemental analysis, we rely on inductively coupled plasma optical emission spectrometry (ICPOES) for high-throughput analysis of main and trace elements across various matrices. Additionally, our use of inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS and ICP-MS/MS) enables ultra-trace analysis of elements like metals and metalloids, sulfur, and phosphorus. These ICP-MS systems are specially equipped with advanced features for removing interferences and enhancing our capability to analyze rare earth elements at extremely low concentrations.