Translator for HPLC HINTS and TIPS for Chromatographers

Saturday, September 2, 2017

HPLC Solvents, Acetonitrile and Methanol, Key Differences and Properties

Widely used in RP HPLC method development, Acetonitrile (ACN) and Methanol (MeOH) are the two most common solvents you will use with water or aqueous buffers to develop methods. So, besides the fact that Acetonitrile is well know to have a higher elution capacity than Methanol, what other properties should chromatographer's be aware of? Let's discuss a few that all chromatographers should know.

First, a few comments about the preparation of mobile phase solutions. 

     There are two common methods of preparing binary mixtures, V/V, of mobile phase solutions.
  • Method #1 is to fill a volumetric flask with a specific volume of the "A" solution, then fill the flask up to the line with the "B" solution.
  • Method #2 is to fill a graduated cylinder (or volumetric flask) with a specified amount of "A" solution; fill a second graduated cylinder (or volumetric flask) with a specified amount of the "B" solution and then mix the contents of both together.
Whichever method you use, please fully document it in your HPLC method so anyone reading it will be able to accurately reproduce it. The two methods described above are both correct in design, but will result in solutions with different properties.

For HPLC grade solvent (*we should always use HPLC or LC-MS grade solutions in HPLC analysis), ACN has the lowest absorbance (~ 190 nm) of the two making it well suited for low UV applications. HPLC grade MeOH has a slightly higher UV cut-off, around 205-210 nm, limiting its use in the very low UV ranges.

There is a significant difference between ACN and MeOH in their ability to dissolve many types of buffer salts AND samples. These differences are critical in method development. 

Solubility of the Mobile Phase:
  • A common reason for gradient runs to show poor reproducibility or to fail may be associated with running high concentrations of buffer combined with high concentrations of organic solvent. Most aqueous / organic solutions containing salt solutions of less than 10 mM concentration are not likely to precipitate under most gradient conditions (running to a max of 98% organic, not 100%). If high percentages of organic solvent are mixed with more concentrated buffer solutions, then the higher salt concentrations may precipitate out of solution during the analysis (resulting in clogs, leaks, plugs and/or inaccurate results). Be cautious when mixing organic solvents and buffers together for gradient analysis. Make sure the solutions used will stay in solution and be stable at all concentrations used. Also verify that the buffering capacity is still present when high organic concentrations are used (as your buffer will be diluted). *Not sure if the salt will stay in solution? Just mix up a sample at the same concentration for a test. Look at it. Is there any turbidity or particulate visible? You should have your answer.
  • Methanol's overall better solubility characteristics (better than ACN) mean that it does a better job of dissolving most salts (esp NH4, K and Na) at higher concentrations resulting in better performance and less precipitation.

Solubility of the Samples (effect on Peak Shape, Selectivity & Retention):
  • A fundamental requirement of liquid chromatography is that the sample fully dissolves in the mobile phase (initial mobile phase). Dissolve the sample in the mobile phase or in a slightly weaker strength solution (not a stronger solution) before analysis. This insures it will be loaded onto the head of the column as a concentrated slug improving peak shape and RSD. If the sample does not fully dissolve in the mobile phase then you are not in fact analyzing the whole sample. Another area where Methanol may be superior to ACN can be found in its ability to fully dissolve more types of samples. This improved solubility may result in better overall peak shape. Methanol also has different selectivity, often better than ACN (not just the elution strength) which may result in peaks eluting at different retention times than expecting. This is another reason why we always try different mobile phase mixtures containing either ACN or MeOH when developing RP methods. Please never assume that one solvent will be better than the other. Too many novice chromatographer's use only ACN as their main organic solvent for method development. Please don't make their mistake as such a strategy indicates a lack of practical experience and knowledge. You must first try them both separately (ACN & MeOH) to evaluate the results with your own sample (best to start with comprehensive gradients at different pH values, as applicable). You will be rewarded for putting in the initial time to test both types of solutions as no simulator has yet been developed which can predict a truly accurate result with your own sample(s). You may be surprised to learn how many samples show better peak shape and performance using MeOH solutions. If no improvement is seen, document it and move forward with more confidence.

  • ACN is less viscous than MeOH ( 0.34 vs. 0.54 respectively) and if used alone will result in lower column and system back-pressures overall. Less gas will dissolve into ACN vs MeOH. Mixtures of ACN and Water will also exhibit an endothermic reaction (cooling the solution) which can trap gas inside the solution. If you pre-mix your mobile phase, let it rest for several minutes after preparation.
  • MeOH is more viscous than ACN alone. It also has an unusual property where a 50/50 mixture of MeOH and Water will result in a much higher system and column back pressure than either MeOH or Water alone will (*ACN has a similar property, but the peak pressure occurs between 60-70%). The effect with methanol is very Gaussian with a peak pressure observed with a 50/50 mixture. An exothermic reaction results from an initial mixture of the two solutions (MeOH and Water) releasing some gas. When preparing solutions it is best to allow the solution to rest for a few minutes to out-gass before topping off or using in the HPLC system.

I hope that this short discussion about some of the differences between these two popular HPLC solvents will aid you in developing better quality HPLC and LC-MS methods.

Reference: Table of HPLC Solvent Properties