Insights from industry

The Future of Trace Gas Analysis

Lukas Märk, CEO of IONICON, talks to AZoM about the future of trace gas analysis.

Could you please provide our readers with a brief introduction to the industries that IONICON operates within?

Our instruments and services are crucial when there is need for detection and analysis of very low concentrated volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in real-time without sample preparation.

Our customers are predominately leading scientists at universities and in R&D labs of larger corporations that are used to traditional techniques such as GC-MS and now want to see dynamic profiles of samples in a high time resolution where before PTR-MS they would have lost this important, time resolved data of their experiment or process. Typically, this is the case in environmental research, food & flavor science or process monitoring.

How has IONICON grown since it was founded in 1998?

In 1998 we commercialized PTR-MS (Proton Transfer Reaction – Mass Spectrometry).

Since our incorporation and the sale of the first instrument we have experienced a solid organic growth from the very first employee to nowadays around 30 specialists, with more than 250 PTR-MS trace gas analyzers sold, a substantial business in calibration devices, custom development and analytical services and customers all over the world.

Could you provide our readers with an overview of the analytical theory behind trace gas analysis using IONICON’s PTR-MS and give an overview of the available techniques?

PTR-MS is a chemical ionization technique with the advantage of being soft, very efficient and suitable for direct sample injection.

PTR-MS is based on proton transfer from protonated water ions (H3O+) to sample molecules having a higher proton affinity than water, which is fortunately true for most low concentrated VOCs but does not apply to the typically higher concentrated constituents of clean air such as CO2, O2 or rear gases. This leads to our market-leading detection limit of less than 1 part per trillion (pptv) in only a few seconds measuring time for most of the common VOCs.

In contrast to other methods, PTR-MS does not dilute the sample by a carrier gas which is required by competing techniques, nor do our instruments use a signal diminishing mass filter that is needed for some other technologies. This leads us to being the world’s leading producer of the most sensitive real-time trace gas analyzers available on the market.

IONICON PTR-MS became the benchmark method for simultaneous real-time monitoring of VOCs. Our instruments are known for their market-leading detection limits in the single-digit pptv-range and real-time monitoring capabilities. The PTR-MS technology is available in our product portfolio based on various quadrupole or time of flight mass spectrometers.

IONICON recently launched the PTR-QiTOF, what are the main advantages of this instrument?

The IONICON PTR-QiTOF, featuring a quadrupole ion guide, is our new flagship PTR-TOFMS instrument with one order of magnitude lower detection limit, 25x more sensitivity, and 20% higher mass resolution than our PTR-TOF 8000, which has been the world’s bestselling PTR-TOFMS instrument to date.

The PTR-QiTOF allows quantitative analysis of the entire mass range within a fraction of a second, and provides high mass resolution for separation and identification of complex samples. With such excellent speed and sensitivity, the instrument sets a new benchmark for highly dynamic systems e.g. flux measurements.

How does real-time trace gas analysis compare to more traditional techniques?

In traditional techniques such as GC-MS the sample needs to be prepared and pre-treated, which is time consuming, laborious, often requiring expensive consumables. Most crucially, however, is the loss of highly relevant dynamic information from the experiment or process, during the sample pre-treatment.

PTR-MS allows you to directly inject the gas phase sample. Obviating sample collection, preparation and storage avoids many storage induced artefacts. Only split-seconds after introduction quantitative data is provided by the instrument.

Not only the sample preparation is an issue, also the analysis time of the conventional technology itself is typically in the range more than several minutes before the next run can be started.

PTR-MS in contrast delivers results in real-time: the instrument’s response time is less than 100 ms, which allows a very high time resolution.

We sometimes compare GC-MS with PTR-MS in a way that GC-MS gives you a detailed still image, but PTR-MS provides the full movie. The movie will be not as detailed as the high-resolution image but provides a dynamic perspective, a single image can never have. In this allegory, the high mass-resolution of the new PTR-QiTOF corresponds to a movie in full high-definition.

What are the main differences between the PTR-QiTOF and previous Proton Transfer Reaction Mass Spectrometry instruments from IONICON?

With the PTR-QiTOF we enter into a new era of PTR-TOFMS technology. Instead of the traditional transfer lens system between the reaction chamber and the TOF (time of flight) mass analyzer, the PTR-QiTOF uses a quadrupole ion guide. This ion guide has a much better transmission of the ions leading to a greatly increased sensitivity, lower detection limit but also a higher mass resolution.

Moreover the PTR-QiTOF includes our latest and refined PTR ionization technology incl. the IONICON ULTRA-PURE ion source and new space and weight saving layout.

What are the primary applications areas of the PTR-QiTOF?

When sensitivity, a low detection limit and high mass resolution are crucial, this instrument outperforms all other systems and is unique in the whole market.

Currently one of the most challenging areas is the measurement of atmospheric fluxes. Eddy covariance is a key method to measure and calculate vertical turbulent fluxes in the atmosphere. It requires high time resolution measurements of 3D wind components (e.g. 5–20 Hz). A parallel measurement of VOC concentrations can be correlated with the vertical wind component to extract emission and deposition fluxes. This necessitates a trace gas analyzer able to measure ultra-low VOC concentrations quantitatively and with a high-time resolution of 10 Hz.

The PTR-QiTOF perfectly meets these requirements. The instrument allows for highly time resolved measurements (> 10 Hz) and its high sensitivity for VOCs provides quantitative results for trace gas concentrations. It acquires the full spectrum in each measurement. Moreover, the PTR-QiTOF’s high mass resolving power allows for separation of isobars and provides chemical identification of the measured compounds.

Where do IONICON currently supply to? Are these any plans to expanding operations in the near future?

Currently we are serving leading scientists in universities and global corporations with instruments in many different areas including atmospheric chemistry, BVOC flux measurements, environmental research and trace gas analysis (e.g. emissions in urban and remote areas, indoor spaces, vehicles).

A very different but not less important field for us is food and flavor science (e.g. analysis of coffee, olive oil, butter, cheese, wine, herbal extracts and aromas) where we also developed special inlet systems for tastings panels. Some applications involve industrial VOC monitoring (e.g. in waste incineration plants, chemical factories and production sites) and illicit substances detection (Explosives, CWAs, TICs). Also medical and biotechnological applications where real-time monitoring of industrial fermentation processes, of synthetic gas production processes in the petrochemical industry and a medical device for real-time breath gas analysis for clinical applications were developed.

In the future we hope not only to expand the already increasing business of rendering analytical services to customers who do not wish to undergo capital investment but nevertheless would like to benefit from real-time trace gas analysis, but also to bring new technologies and instruments to the market.

How do you see the field of trace gas analysis progressing over the next decade and how will IONICON be part of this change?

I believe that the field of trace gas analysis will prosper in the next decade based on the following assumptions:

First, the available technologies become better, cheaper and more diverse, and second, there are more and more scientists learning about the advantages a technology such as PTR-MS can offer. Not to forget that also regulatory bodies have an eye on current technologies’ capabilities and will insofar adapt legislations in a way that for many areas real-time monitoring of emissions will become a standard. Limits will be set lower and lower as technology advances in order to protect our environment and production processes will get better and better, often requiring real-time VOC monitoring.

We intent to play a very active role in this business, investing substantially in our R&D and coping with the expectations of better and cheaper instruments as well as with new, challenging applications. I also think that technology and the instruments will become more user-friendly and advance to standards where customers expect the analysis to be as fast as real-time, without sample preparation and as little compromises as possible in terms of valuable data gathered by the measurement.

How can our readers find out more about IONICON and the PTR-QiTOF?

I’d recommend this page of our website where we summarize who we are what we do briefly. Links then take visitors to other areas of our website:

In particular for the PTR-QiTOF we have assembled a detailed product page on our website where not only the most important specifications are listed but also downloads, articles and links to other resources are available:

I would like to refer to a peer-reviewed article we published in the International Journal of Mass Spectrometry earlier this year:

P.Sulzer et al: “A Proton Transfer Reaction - Quadrupole interface Time-Of-Flight Mass Spectrometer (PTR-QiTOF): High Speed due to Extreme Sensitivity”, Int. J. Mass Spectrom. vol. 368, 1-5, 2014,

Lukas Märk

About Lukas Märk

Lukas Märk started his professional career at Ionicon Analytik GmbH in 2005 as Marketing & Sales Manager.

His focus was to establish a balanced marketing and sales strategy for the unique PTR-MS technology that was commercialized by IONICON in 1998, find new application areas and develop new market driven products as well as to install a worldwide distribution network for IONICON products.

In 2011 he became CEO of IONICON that grew more than two times in turnover and employees since 2005.

As CEO he dedicates a lot of his work to new business and market development.

Lukas holds a Master’s degree in International Business Sciences.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views of Limited (T/A) AZoNetwork, the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and Conditions of use of this website.

Alexander Chilton

Written by

Alexander Chilton

Alexander has a BSc in Physics from the University of Sheffield. After graduating, he spent two years working in Sheffield for a large UK-based law firm, before relocating back to the North West and joining the editorial team at AZoNetwork. Alexander is particularly interested in the history and philosophy of science, as well as science communication. Outside of work, Alexander can often be found at gigs, record shopping or watching Crewe Alexandra trying to avoid relegation to League Two.


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