Translator for HPLC HINTS and TIPS for Chromatographers

Saturday, May 18, 2013

HPLC Solution Degassing, Sparging With the Wrong Gas (Gas Choice Matters)

The other day I took a call from a client whom explained they were having a number of problems with their HPLC pump. They felt that they were very experienced chromatographers whom had been unable to find the reason for why their pump flow stability was poor. It had very high ripple and noise. The pump had been fully serviced one month earlier and passed all qualification tests. Their UV/VIS detector appeared to work fine and was ruled out as being the problem early on. They used HPLC grade filtered solvents, operated at an appropriate flow rate, had a clean and tested column installed, always primed their pump before use each day and sparged each solvent reservoir with a low stream of continuous gas kept away from the solvent inlet lines. Everything seemed in order, but something was clearly wrong. Their vendor suspected the check valves were to blame so they purchased and installed new ones with no change. They still had an unstable flow rate under all conditions tested (pump pulsation of 5%). When I asked them if they had changed anything related to the HPLC system in the past few months I was reassured that nothing had been altered.

Often the best way to solve a problem is to start at the beginning. Take nothing for granted. This started as one of those many phone calls I receive where someone wants me to solve their problem over the phone and by not visiting their laboratory. Sometimes this is possible, but sometimes the problem is something that can only be seen by being physically present in their laboratory. I felt this was one of those times. So, they agreed to pay for a few hours of consulting time to have me come out and go over their system to find the problem. Once I arrived at the client's lab I quickly went over to inspect the layout of the equipment and check the tubing connections for the correct fittings and tightness. Next, I looked at the software parameters being used to operate the system. Some small issues were found, but not enough to explain the problem seen. I then looked at the physical output of the pump and detector to get a better idea of the period, cycle and type of noise seen. While I was reviewing the data and still looking over the system, I found the problem. The high pressure gas cylinder next to the instrument was labeled ARGON. Argon was being used as the sparging gas for the mobile phase instead of the more appropriate gas, Helium. They had in fact recently switched to argon gas because it was less expensive to use than helium. The person (their senior chemist) who had made this substitution was rewarded for his cost-cutting suggestion. Their choice of argon gas had of course cost them several weeks of down time while they tried to solve this problem on their own.... not much of a savings when you consider that! So, they had in fact caused the problem themselves, but were not aware of the fundamental reason why changing to argon gas was a very bad idea.

Why does the gas choice matter? For liquid chromatography applications we only use high-purity helium gas for sparging because it is one of the few inert gases which are NOT soluble in water and mobile phase solutions. Gases such as argon and nitrogen ARE soluble in water and mobile phase solutions.  While they can be used to displace oxygen from air (great if you are making wine, but not so great if you are using the solution for HPLC), they infuse the liquid with gas (like a soda). Helium easily displaces air (oxygen and nitrogen) from solutions while not adding any dissolved gas to the solution. Helium is not soluble. If we sparge with argon or nitrogen, then we infuse the solution with gas. This is the opposite of what we wish to accomplish by degassing our mobile phase. Please, if you wish to use the continuous gas sparging method to degass your mobile phase, then use high-purity helium gas only.

So I suggested that they replace their high pressure argon cylinder with a tank of high purity helium. Luckily they still had their original helium tank available so we hooked it back up. I sparged their mobile phase with the helium gas for about ten minutes then primed the pumps with the solution. The helium was left continuously flowing at a very low pressure (~ 2 psi) through a dedicated SS frit in the mobile phase. This keeps the level of helium in solution constant over time, resulting in stable baselines. After about five minutes the pump was running smooth and about as pulse free as you could hope for (0.1% pulsation). Lesson: Never assume anything and don't forget to make decisions which incorporate some basic scientific reasoning into them first.