Gas chromatography - specifically gas-liquid chromatography - involves a sample being vapourised and injected onto the head of the chromatographic column. The sample is transported through the column by the flow of inert, gaseous mobile phase. The column itself contains a liquid stationary phase which is adsorbed onto the surface of an inert solid.

Have a look at this schematic diagram of a gas chromatograph:

Instrumental components

Carrier gas

The carrier gas must be chemically inert. Commonly used gases include nitrogen, helium, argon, and carbon dioxide. The choice of carrier gas is often dependant upon the type of detector which is used. The carrier gas system also contains a molecular sieve to remove water and other impurities.

Sample injection port

For optimum column efficiency, the sample should not be too large, and should be introduced onto the column as a "plug" of vapour - slow injection of large samples causes band broadening and loss of resolution. The most common injection method is where a microsyringe is used to inject sample through a rubber septum into a flash vapouriser port at the head of the column. The temperature of the sample port is usually about 50C higher than the boiling point of the least volatile component of the sample. For packed columns, sample size ranges from tenths of a microliter up to 20 microliters. Capillary columns, on the other hand, need much less sample, typically around 10-3 mL. For capillary GC, split/splitless injection is used. Have a look at this diagram of a split/splitless injector;

The injector can be used in one of two modes; split or splitless. The injector contains a heated chamber containing a glass liner into which the sample is injected through the septum. The carrier gas enters the chamber and can leave by three routes (when the injector is in split mode). The sample vapourises to form a mixture of carrier gas, vapourised solvent and vapourised solutes. A proportion of this mixture passes onto the column, but most exits through the split outlet. The septum purge outlet prevents septum bleed components from entering the column.


There are two general types of column, packed and capillary (also known as open tubular). Packed columns contain a finely divided, inert, solid support material (commonly based on diatomaceous earth) coated with liquid stationary phase. Most packed columns are 1.5 - 10m in length and have an internal diameter of 2 - 4mm.

Capillary columns have an internal diameter of a few tenths of a millimeter. They can be one of two types; wall-coated open tubular (WCOT) or support-coated open tubular (SCOT). Wall-coated columns consist of a capillary tube whose walls are coated with liquid stationary phase. In support-coated columns, the inner wall of the capillary is lined with a thin layer of support material such as diatomaceous earth, onto which the stationary phase has been adsorbed. SCOT columns are generally less efficient than WCOT columns. Both types of capillary column are more efficient than packed columns.

In 1979, a new type of WCOT column was devised - the Fused Silica Open Tubular (FSOT) column;

These have much thinner walls than the glass capillary columns, and are given strength by the polyimide coating. These columns are flexible and can be wound into coils. They have the advantages of physical strength, flexibility and low reactivity.

Column temperature

For precise work, column temperature must be controlled to within tenths of a degree. The optimum column temperature is dependant upon the boiling point of the sample. As a rule of thumb, a temperature slightly above the average boiling point of the sample results in an elution time of 2 - 30 minutes. Minimal temperatures give good resolution, but increase elution times. If a sample has a wide boiling range, then temperature programming can be useful. The column temperature is increased (either continuously or in steps) as separation proceeds.


There are many detectors which can be used in gas chromatography. Different detectors will give different types of selectivity. A non-selective detector responds to all compounds except the carrier gas, a selective detector responds to a range of compounds with a common physical or chemical property and a specific detector responds to a single chemical compound. Detectors can also be grouped into concentration dependant detectors and mass flow dependant detectors. The signal from a concentration dependant detector is related to the concentration of solute in the detector, and does not usually destroy the sample Dilution of with make-up gas will lower the detectors response. Mass flow dependant detectors usually destroy the sample, and the signal is related to the rate at which solute molecules enter the detector. The response of a mass flow dependant detector is unaffected by make-up gas. Have a look at this tabular summary of common GC detectors:

DetectorTypeSupport gasesSelectivityDetectabilityDynamic range
Flame ionization (FID)Mass flowHydrogen and airMost organic cpds.100 pg107
Thermal conductivity (TCD)ConcentrationReferenceUniversal1 ng107
Electron capture (ECD)ConcentrationMake-upHalides, nitrates, nitriles, peroxides, anhydrides, organometallics50 fg105
Nitrogen-phosphorusMass flowHydrogen and airNitrogen, phosphorus10 pg106
Flame photometric (FPD)Mass flowHydrogen and air possibly oxygenSulphur, phosphorus, tin, boron, arsenic, germanium, selenium, chromium100 pg103
Photo-ionization (PID)ConcentrationMake-upAliphatics, aromatics, ketones, esters, aldehydes, amines, heterocyclics, organosulphurs, some organometallics2 pg107
Hall electrolytic conductivityMass flowHydrogen, oxygenHalide, nitrogen, nitrosamine, sulphur  

The effluent from the column is mixed with hydrogen and air, and ignited. Organic compounds burning in the flame produce ions and electrons which can conduct electricity through the flame. A large electrical potential is applied at the burner tip, and a collector electrode is located above the flame. The current resulting from the pyrolysis of any organic compounds is measured. FIDs are mass sensitive rather than concentration sensitive; this gives the advantage that changes in mobile phase flow rate do not affect the detector's response. The FID is a useful general detector for the analysis of organic compounds; it has high sensitivity, a large linear response range, and low noise. It is also robust and easy to use, but unfortunately, it destroys the sample.

Review your learning

You should be aware of how a GC instrument works and the principles behind the operation of the major instrumental components, including injectors, columns and detectors.

Chromatography - Introductory Theory Quiz
Gas Chromatography
Gas Chromatography - Quiz

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