When Should an Internal Standard be Used?

Jun 01, 2012
Volume 30, Issue 6, pg 474–480

Will an internal standard always improve data quality?

A reader contacted me recently after receiving reviewer comments for a paper that they had submitted for publication. The reviewer suggested that the author would get much better data quality if they used an internal standard with their liquid chromatography (LC) method. The reader wasn't sure how an internal standard would improve the results, because they had never used this method of calibration before, so they asked me for some help. I think this is a good opportunity for a general discussion on this topic, because even though many workers use internal standards on a daily basis, many others may never have the need or, as is the present reader's case, may not know enough about internal standardization to make an informed decision about its use.

The concept of an internal standard (IS) is quite simple — you just add a known amount of the IS to every sample, both calibrators and unknowns, and instead of basing the calibration on the absolute response of the analyte, the calibration uses the ratio of response between the analyte and the IS.

External Standardization


Figure 1: Calibration plots of concentration of analyte (CA) versus response (RA) for external standardization (plain text) and concentration ratio (CA/CIS) versus response ratio (RA/RIS) for internal standardization (labels in parentheses).
Most of us are familiar with how external standardization is used, but a review won't hurt. To construct a calibration plot, a series of calibration solutions are made containing known concentrations of reference standard. For the present discussion, let's refer to these as C A for concentration of analyte, and make solutions at 0, 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10 ng/mL. A series of chromatograms are run where the same volume of each solution (for example, 10 µL) is injected, and the response of the analyte (R A) is recorded (usually peak height or peak area). If the responses for the respective solutions are 0, 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10 area units, we can construct a calibration plot, such as that shown in Figure 1. Each point on the calibration line corresponds to a calibrator concentration and its response, as illustrated for the 4-ng/mL calibrator and its 4 area-unit response (dashed line in Figure 1). Then samples of unknown concentration are prepared using the same sample preparation procedure, injected, and the area of the resulting peak is measured, an area of 8, for example. This value is located on the vertical axis and a horizontal line is drawn to the right (dashed line) until it intersects with the calibration line. From this point, a vertical line is dropped to determine the concentration of analyte in the unknown sample (8 ng/mL in the present example). Of course, with a modern data system all this is done mathematically in the background, so manual plots such as that of Figure 1 are rarely constructed.

Internal Standardization

For IS calibration, an IS is chosen (according to the criteria discussed below), and is added at the same concentration to every sample. For example, to generate an internally standardized calibration plot for the data discussed above, we might make a concentrated IS solution of 100 ng/mL of the IS. Then an aliquot of this IS solution would be added to a specific volume of a reference standard solution to obtain a known ratio of concentrations, C A /C IS . For example, 900 µL of a 4-ng/mL solution of reference standard plus 100 µL of the 100-ng/mL IS solution would yield 1 mL of a solution with a ratio of 0.36 C A /C IS , which is equal to ([4 ng/mL × 900 µL]/1000 µL)/([100 ng/mL × 100 µL]/1000 µL). When this solution is injected, it will give a chromatogram with two peaks, one each for the reference standard and IS. The area ratio for these two peaks is paired with the concentration ratio to construct the calibration plot as in Figure 1, where the arrows highlight the 0.36 C A /C IS concentration ratio and its corresponding 0.36 R A /R IS response ratio (I've assumed the analyte and internal standard have the same response characteristics). Now, if the same sample preparation procedure is used to add IS to unknown samples, the R A /R IS ratio can be used to determine the concentration ratio (arrows for 0.8 R A/R IS leading to 0.8 C A /C IS in Figure 1). Because the concentration of IS (C IS) added to the sample is known, the concentration of analyte in the sample (C A ) can be calculated.


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