- Key Point: HPLC systems utilize Teflon low-pressure tubing to transfer the mobile phase from the mobile phase bottles to the HPLC pump. The Teflon lines are permeable to gas in the atmosphere. Gas is diffusing through the plastic tubing used to transport your solvents. This is one of the reasons why we purge the entire flow path of the HPLC system before use, each day. Overnight, gas has diffused into the system so we start by flushing (purge) the mobile phase from each bottle, through the degasser, through each channel all the way to the pump head, to waste.
To start the troubleshooting process to find the reason why air bubbles may be observed existing the HPLC vacuum degasser module, we examine the flow path.
Reasons For Air Bubbles Exiting The Vacuum Degasser:
- Loose Connections: If the low pressure fittings (nuts and ferrules) which secure the Teflon tubing to the degasser are damaged or loose, air may enter the system resulting in bubbles. Most vacuum degassers use plastic finger-tight style fittings 1/4-28 (or 5/16-24). The threads are soft and can be deformed. When access to these fittings is difficult, sometimes the fittings are left loose and will allow small amounts of air to be drawn in (such as found on many of the generic small benchtop degasser which use the micro-chambers or the HP/Agilent model G1379-series). Inspect the tubing and fittings used for proper seating depth, wear and/or damage. Replace parts as needed and re-install using the correct amount of torque.
- Flow Rate Too High or Not Enough Degasser Equilibration Time: Degassing efficiency is directly related to the flow rate. Lower flow rates increase the residence time of the mobile phase in the degassing membrane or tubing, improving the gas removal. Higher flow rates provide less time for gas extraction and result in lower degassing efficiency. Check with the manufacturer regarding the optimal flow rate range for your degasser to insure you are working within an acceptable range. Allow enough time for the degasser to reach its set-point and stabilize before use.
- Choice of Mobile Phase Liquid: The solubility of air (gas) in the specific solution used also affects the efficiency of the vacuum degasser. Aqueous solutions usually hold less gas than popular organic solvents (though air bubbles can be harder to "push" through in water). The amount of dissolved gas inside the liquid relates directly to the time needed to reduce it to acceptable levels for use in HPLC.
- Dirty or Obstructed Solvent Pickup Filters (Bottle filters): Bottle filters should be cleaned or replaced at regular intervals, following routine maintenance SOPs. When they become fouled or obstructed, a vacuum may form as the liquid is drawn into the system. This may result in air being sucked into the tubing or through a fitting (remember that the low pressure Teflon tubing used to connect the bottles to the degasser and pump is porous and allows gas to diffuse through it). The pickup filters should not obstruct the normal flow of solvent (typically they are 10-20 u in porosity).
- Lack of Vacuum Degasser Preventative Maintenance: HPLC Vacuum degasser modules, like most other component parts of your HPLC system break down over time and require professional diagnostic testing, cleaning and repair. Under ideal conditions, most inline electronic vacuum degassers require diagnostic testing and cleaning or repair every 4 to 5 years. *Many show signs of contamination or failure before that time. The internal vacuum tubing becomes contaminated and worn over time. The vacuum pump is an electromechanical part which is exposed to all of the mobile phase additives and solvent vapors during use. Other internal component parts such as vacuum valves or restrictors may also become contaminated or worn over time. The vacuum degassing membranes (or tubing) themselves can stretch from use and wear out over time. The vacuum chambers may be exposed to incompatible chemicals or overpressured resulting in internal leakage. Certain chemicals may also attack and even dissolve the degassing membranes causing more internal damage and contamination of the mobile phase. These devices do not have any "contamination" detection alarms and the vacuum sensors sometimes become damaged over time leading to false vacuum levels being reported. Never rely on the module's built-in error alarm system as proof of compliance (no more than you would the reported flow rate shown on the computer screen. It must be measured to be known). Regular professional HPLC degasser testing and service are required to maintain the modules and meet compliance requirements.