Translator for HPLC HINTS and TIPS for Chromatographers

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Carry-Over (Carryover) Contamination in HPLC and LC-MS Systems

"Carry-over" is a term used to describe a type of sample contamination which causes sample peaks to re-appear in later runs which do not actually contain the sample (e.g. blank runs). The contamination can last for several sequential runs, often decreasing in amount after each injection (which is a key observation when troubleshooting). When proper instrument training has been provided, modern HPLC system designs make carryover extremely rare, but when it does appear, the contamination can be due to: (1) A lack of HPLC maintenance; (2) Overloading samples which foul the column; (3) Poor Wash Vial Usage and/or Sample Vial Selection; (4) Inadequate operator training in how to set-up and use the chromatography system. *Note: Proper operator training greatly reduces the chances of contamination and is the most overlooked reason for the problem.

The Types of HPLC Carry-Over Contamination; Why They Occur and How To Reduce Them:

(1) A Lack of HPLC Maintenance: Most auto-injector valves rely on a rotary seal to move the sample from the needle loop to the flow path of the system. The components within these valves wear out and should be inspected at least every 6 months and replaced when needed. Also, always check the needle seat and needle for signs of wear or leaking. Note: Look for signs of leaks by the injector. Leaks always indicate a problem and should be fixed immediately. Don't run samples when you have leaks. Your method and data obtained will be invalid. Any worn parts should be replaced and the system performance tested. One of the most common causes of carry-over is due to a worn sample injector valve rotary seal. A worn seal can allow sample to be retained in the worn grooves, in-between injections, resulting in sample peaks appearing in subsequent runs. Additionally, buffer salts can lodge between the seals causing leaks or carryover. Routine HPLC service and, if applicable, flushing of all buffers/salts every day can eliminate these issues.

(2) Column Fouling / Overloading of Sample: If you inject too high a concentration of sample and overload your column with material, then it is possible that your column will continue to bleed sample long after the analysis is over. This also happens when the sample has a high affinity for the support you have chosen too. Failure to regularly flush and clean your HPLC column on a regular basis can also result in a similar problem as retained material is released from the column over time. Avoid this problem by performing a loading study to determine how much material can be effectively loaded on to the column. Next, create a wash method which utilizes a stronger solvent than your method (often utilizing a gradient) which will wash away any strongly retained material in between runs. This is critical if you are running an isocratic method as material will be retained on the column and must be washed off at frequent intervals using a stronger wash solution. *When using only isocratic methods, people often do not initially observe carry-over problems (because the sample just sticks to the column and accumulates over time). When the solvent strength is changed or the method is revised to a gradient, then the problems start... Avoid the problem by selecting the right column (which retains, then elutes ALL of the sample), not overloading the column (do a loading study) and washing the column down with a stronger solution that fully dissolves (not precipitates out) any remaining material off the column after each run.

(3) Wash Vial Usage and/or Sample Vial Selection: If you are using a modern high-pressure, "Flow-Through" design autoinjector (e.g. Agilent 1100, 1200, 1260, 1290), then carryover is rarely an issue as these modern injectors use a high pressure pump to aspirate and inject the samples directly into the flow path, reducing the need for any wash stage. The entire HPLC's injection flow path is continuously washed with mobile phase during the analysis run. This dramatically reduces the chances of any sample re-appearing in later runs. The need for a separate wash vial is nearly eliminated in this way as the needle, needle seat, loop, injector pump and valve are all flushed clean during each method. Many older auto-injector designs utilize either a low pressure injector (glass syringe) or injector pump which is not part of the main flow path. These injectors benefit from a separate wash vial as they are not continuously cleaned. Effective cleaning requires that a wash vial be employed in these cases. It should be filled with mobile phase or a solution which will dissolve any remaining material which might still be in the system.

When sticky sample solutions are used, separate Wash Vials can be used to reduce contamination with either older or newer injector designs . Sometimes these sticky samples can adhere to the outside of the needle while it is being withdrawn from a vial which has a septa which has been punctured many times. High puncture rates tend to open up the hole resulting in a lack of "wiping' of the needle surface upon withdrawal. *For vials that are punctured many times, it is critical to replace the septa OR use septa materials which seal for a long enough time frame to reduce this effect. Septa needle wiping eliminates some of this contamination. Two types of contamination can occur from this problem. (a) When the needle is dipped into a vial (same or different one) which also has a large septa opening, it can carry some of the sample with it and deposit it into the new vial (or onto the septa of the vial). (b) The contamination can also run down the needle itself and drip onto the needle seat at the time of injection resulting in contamination of the seat or sample.

One of the easiest solutions to reduce external needle contamination involves incorporating a wash vial which contains a solution which is optimized to quickly dissolve the sample into solution. This sounds simple, but many chromatographer's choose wash solutions which do not enhance the cleaning aspect of the needle at all. For example: Mobile phase, which is normally ideal, but does not work in some cases. Samples such as peptides, proteins, fats, oils and/or lipids can be troublesome as their solubility can be at odds with the mobile phase chosen. For the wash vial to be effective, it must quickly dissolve the material. The needle can be first "dunked" (dipped) into one vial containing the solution and withdrawn, followed by an aspiration and wash in a second wash vial. If needed, you take this cleaning one step further and use additional aspiration steps to serially dilute any remaining material. These wash vials must be changed frequently (easily done by having several wash vial positions programmed in the system). Additionally, the caps should be left OFF the wash vials to reduce pickup contamination each time they are used (this step is critical).

Lastly, if you are analyzing sticky materials which are known to interact with metals found in chromatography systems, consider using a system which incorporates bio-compatible materials such as titanium, tantalum and/or polymers such as PEAK. You can also utilize plastic sample vials (e.g. PP) or plastic vial inserts too.

(4) Inadequate Operator Training: Good chromatography requires a complete understanding of the hardware used and the fundamentals of HPLC. You must be able to troubleshoot the complete flow path of the system and understand the concepts of chromatography as used in method development. This is not a technique best learned by trial and error, but rather through mentoring using logical steps. Depending on your skill set, troubleshooting a "carry-over" problem in an HPLC system can take minutes to months to diagnose and solve. We learn these skills through hands-on experience and training. Reading many of the better books and articles on the subject matter helps too. Get as much practical hands-on training as you can. Ask your supervisor or manager(s) to invest in you by purchasing professional training for you in this field so you can learn on your own systems. You will learn far faster this way and spend less time troubleshooting problems and more time running samples, accurately in less overall time. Training also costs just a fraction of what the instrumentation and your salary are. If you have acquired the fundamental skills, a skilled teacher can impart about one years worth of practical knowledge to you in as little as one week of training.

Summary: The two most common reasons for sample carry-over contamination in an HPLC or LC/MS system are due to: lack of operator training and/or lack of system maintenance (most commonly manifested as a worn injector rotor seal).

 Note: This article specifically addresses carry-over contamination as it relates to the most commonly used HPLC, UHPLC and LC-MS autoinjectors (or autosampler modules).

You may wish to read a related article on "Troubleshooting HPLC Injectors (Manual and Automated)" found at this link: