Atomic emission spectroscopy (AES) is a method of chemical analysis that uses the intensity of light emitted from a flame, plasma, arc, or spark at a particular wavelength to determine the quantity of an element in a sample. The wavelength of the atomic spectral line in the emission spectrum gives the identity of the element while the intensity of the emitted light is proportional to the number of atoms of the element. The sample may be excited by various methods.
A sample of a material (analyte) is brought into the flame as a gas, sprayed solution, or directly inserted into the flame by use of a small loop of wire, usually platinum. The heat from the flame evaporates the solvent and breaks intramolecular bonds to create free atoms. The thermal energy also excites the atoms into excited electronic states that subsequently emit light when they return to the ground electronic state. Each element emits light at a characteristic wavelength, which is dispersed by a grating or prism and detected in the spectrometer.
A frequent application of the emission measurement with the flame is the regulation of alkali metals for pharmaceutical analytics.
Inductively coupled plasma atomic emission spectroscopy (ICP-AES) uses an inductively coupled plasma to produce excited atoms and ions that emit electromagnetic radiation at wavelengths characteristic of a particular element.
Advantages of ICP-AES are excellent limit of detection and linear dynamic range, multi-element capability, low chemical interference and a stable and reproducible signal. Disadvantages are spectral interferences (many emission lines), cost and operating expense and the fact that samples typically must be in a liquid solution.
Spark or arc atomic emission spectroscopy is used for the analysis of metallic elements in solid samples. For non-conductive materials, the sample is ground with graphite powder to make it conductive. In traditional arc spectroscopy methods, a sample of the solid was commonly ground up and destroyed during analysis. An electric arc or spark is passed through the sample, heating it to a high temperature to excite the atoms within it. The excited analyte atoms emit light at characteristic wavelengths that can be dispersed with a monochromator and detected. In the past, the spark or arc conditions were typically not well controlled, the analysis for the elements in the sample were qualitative. However, modern spark sources with controlled discharges can be considered quantitative. Both qualitative and quantitative spark analysis are widely used for production quality control in foundry and metal casting facilities.