Gases for gas chromatography (GC) have become a hot topic in recent months, primarily because of concerns over short supplies of helium. Already one of the top discussion items, hydrogen as a carrier gas has garnered much of the attention as chromatographers' awareness of these issues continue to expand. Just last month (October 2012), on-line web seminars from Agilent and CHROMacademy were dedicated to conversion from helium to hydrogen carrier gas. A web search on "helium hydrogen carrier" yields guidelines and instructions from every major GC manufacturer and supplier as well as myriad topical threads on all of the GC blogs, boards, and discussion groups. Go to Pittcon, Analytica, the Eastern Analytical Symposium (EAS), or any other conference where GC is on the agenda and the helium issue will be featured prominently.
Among all the discourse, I have noticed that the essential related topic of good practices for deployment of carrier gases and, for that matter, all gases used in GC, is largely missing. Although much of this good advice is easy enough to find in instrument installation guides and supplier catalogs, the connection between obtaining the information and putting it into practice is often missed in many laboratories. Most laboratories will install gas filters in-line, but many will fail to obtain the right type of regulator, make the gas connections correctly, or maintain the filters and check the regulators on a regular schedule.
Questions That Should Be Asked Frequently
What Are the Recommended Gas Purities for Carrier and Detector Gases?
How Pure Are My Gases, Really?
The purity of a gas when it reaches the back of the instrument depends on the supply quality, regulators, filters, fittings, and connecting tubing. Filters will clean up minor contamination, but they are not intended to take gas to a higher purity level. Most of the time the purity of cylinder gas is as labeled on the bottle, but occasionally a contaminated cylinder may make it to delivery. Although it is bad practice on the part of cylinder users, a cylinder might be left open to the atmosphere for hours when empty and removed from service. If not cleaned up by evacuation and baking before filling and then filled with gas to 2450 psig (166 mPa), such a cylinder will contain approximately 6000 ppm of air, which degrades the gas purity to 99.4%. Although it is extremely unlikely to arrive in a cylinder at the receiving dock, this level of contamination represents a conceivable upper limit. When placed in service, the resulting onslaught of oxygen, water, and possibly hydrocarbons will completely exhaust a high-capacity gas filter before the contaminated tank is empty.
This potential for contamination is an excellent reason to use indicating filters on all gas supply lines. The indicator will change color as the filter reaches capacity. As long as the color change is noticed, a new filter is installed, and a pure gas supply is restored, the GC instrument will be spared the indignity of gas contamination and resultant high detector background, irregular baselines, and accompanying loss of signal-to-noise and repeatability.
It is possible, but expensive, to order purity analyses of individual cylinders. This step is only significant when it is difficult to observe the filters or replace the cylinder, such as at remote unattended locations.