Moving toward a handheld “plasma” spectrometer for elemental analysis, putting the power of the atom (Ion) in the palm of your hand

Brian T. Buckley, Rachel Buckley, Cathleen L. Doherty

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Many of the current innovations in instrument design have been focused on making them smaller, more rugged, and eventually field transportable. The ultimate application is obvious, carrying the instrument to the field for real time sample analysis without the need for a support laboratory. Real time data are priceless when screening either biological or environmental samples, as mitigation strategies can be initiated immediately upon the discovery that contaminant metals are present in a location they were not intended to be. Additionally, smaller “handheld” instruments generally require less sample for analysis, possibly increasing sensitivity, another advantage to instrument miniaturization. While many other instruments can be made smaller just by using available micro-technologies (e.g., eNose), shrinking an ICP-MS or AES to something someone might carry in a backpack or pocket is now closer to reality than in the past, and can be traced to its origins based on a component-by-component evaluation. While the optical and mass spectrometers continue to shrink in size, the ion/excitation source remains a challenge as a tradeoff exists between excitation capabilities and the power requirements for the plasma’s generation. Other supporting elements have only recently become small enough for transport. A systematic review of both where the plasma spectrometer started and the evolution of technologies currently available may provide the roadmap necessary to miniaturize the spectrometer. We identify criteria on a component-by-component basis that need to be addressed in designing a miniaturized device and recognize components (e.g., source) that probably require further optimization. For example, the excitation/ionization source must be energetic enough to take a metal from a solid state to its ionic state. Previously, a plasma required a radio frequency generator or high-power DC source, but excitation can now be accomplished with non-thermal (cold) plasma sources. Sample introduction, for solids, liquids, and gasses, presents challenges for all sources in a field instrument. Next, the interface between source and a mass detector usually requires pressure reduction techniques to get an ion from plasma to the spectrometer. Currently, plasma mass spectrometers are field ready but not necessarily handheld. Optical emission spectrometers are already capable of getting photons to the detector but could eventually be connected to your phone. Inert plasma gas generation is close to field ready if nitrogen generators can be miniaturized. Many of these components are already commercially available or at least have been reported in the literature. Comparisons to other “handheld” elemental analysis devices that employ XRF, LIBS, and electrochemical methods (and their limitations) demonstrate that a “cold” plasma-based spectrometer can be more than competitive. Migrating the cold plasma from an emission only source to a mass spectrometer source, would allow both analyte identification and potentially source apportionment through isotopic fingerprinting, and may be the last major hurdle to overcome. Finally, we offer a possible design to aid in making the cold plasma source more applicable to a field deployment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number4761
Issue number16
StatePublished - Aug 2 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Analytical Chemistry
  • Chemistry (miscellaneous)
  • Molecular Medicine
  • Pharmaceutical Science
  • Drug Discovery
  • Physical and Theoretical Chemistry
  • Organic Chemistry


  • Excitation
  • Handheld device design
  • Ionization
  • Metal analytes
  • Micro-technology
  • Plasma
  • Spectrometer


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