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Ion trajectories in an Orbitrap mass spectrometer. Orbitrappe.png
Ion trajectories in an Orbitrap mass spectrometer.

In mass spectrometry, Orbitrap is an ion trap mass analyzer consisting of an outer barrel-like electrode and a coaxial inner spindle-like electrode that traps ions in an orbital motion around the spindle. [1] [2] The image current from the trapped ions is detected and converted to a mass spectrum using the Fourier transform of the frequency signal.



The concept of electrostatically trapping ions in an orbit around a central spindle was developed by Kenneth Hay Kingdon in the early 1920s. [3] The Kingdon trap consists of a thin central wire and an outer cylindrical electrode. A static applied voltage results in a radial logarithmic potential between the electrodes. In 1981, Knight introduced a modified outer electrode that included an axial quadrupole term that confines the ions on the trap axis. [4] Neither the Kingdon nor the Knight configurations were reported to produce mass spectra. The invention of the Orbitrap analyzer and its proof-of-principle by Makarov at the end of the 1990s [1] started a sequence of technology improvements which resulted in the commercial introduction of this analyzer by Thermo Fisher Scientific as a part of the hybrid LTQ Orbitrap instrument in 2005. [5] [6]

Principle of operation

Cross-section of the C-trap and Orbitrap analyzer (ion optics and differential pumping not shown). Ion packet enters the analyzer during the voltage ramp and form rings that induce current detected by the amplifier. OrbitrapMA&Injector.png
Cross-section of the C-trap and Orbitrap analyzer (ion optics and differential pumping not shown). Ion packet enters the analyzer during the voltage ramp and form rings that induce current detected by the amplifier.


In the Orbitrap, ions are trapped because their electrostatic attraction to the inner electrode is balanced by their inertia. Thus, ions cycle around the inner electrode on elliptical trajectories. In addition, the ions also move back and forth along the axis of the central electrode so that their trajectories in space resemble helices. Due to the properties of the quadro-logarithmic potential, [1] their axial motion is harmonic, i.e. it is completely independent not only of motion around the inner electrode but also of all initial parameters of the ions except their mass-to-charge ratios m/z. Its angular frequency is: ω = k/(m/z), where k is the force constant of the potential, similar to the spring constant.


In order to inject ions from an external ion source, the field between the electrodes is first reduced. As ion packets are injected tangentially into the field, the electric field is increased by ramping the voltage on the inner electrode. Ions get squeezed towards the inner electrode until they reach the desired orbit inside the trap. At that moment ramping is stopped, the field becomes static, and detection can start. Each packet contains a multitude of ions of different velocities spread over a certain volume. These ions move with different rotational frequencies but with the same axial frequency. This means that ions of a specific mass-to-charge ratio spread into rings which oscillate along the inner spindle.

Proof-of-principle of the technology was carried out using the direct injection of ions from an external laser desorption and ionization ion source. [1] This method of injection works well with pulsed sources such as MALDI but cannot be interfaced to continuous ion sources like electrospray.

All commercial Orbitrap mass spectrometers utilize a curved linear trap for ion injection (C-trap). By rapidly ramping down trapping RF voltages and applying DC gradients across the C-trap, ions can be bunched into short packets similar to those from the laser ion source. The C-trap is tightly integrated with the analyzer, injection optics and differential pumping.


In principle, coherent axial oscillations of ion rings could be excited by applying RF waveforms to the outer electrode as demonstrated in [7] and references therein. However, if ion packets are injected away from the minimum of the axial potential (which corresponds to the thickest part of either electrode), this automatically initiates their axial oscillations, eliminating the need for any additional excitation. Furthermore, the absence of additional excitation allows the detection process to start as soon as the detection electronics recover from the voltage ramp needed for ion injection.


Cut-outs of a standard (top) and a high-field (bottom) Orbitrap analyzer. Orbitrap Mass Analyzers.jpg
Cut-outs of a standard (top) and a high-field (bottom) Orbitrap analyzer.

Axial oscillations of ion rings are detected by their image current induced on the outer electrode which is split into two symmetrical pick-up sensors connected to a differential amplifier. By processing data in a manner similar to that used in Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometry (FTICR-MS), the trap can be used as a mass analyzer. Like in FTICR-MS, all the ions are detected simultaneously over some given period of time and resolution can be improved by increasing the strength of the field or by increasing the detection period. The Orbitrap differs from FTICR-MS by the absence of a magnetic field and hence has a significantly slower decrease of resolving power with increasing m/z.


LTQ Orbitrap ThermoScientificOrbitrapElite.JPG
LTQ Orbitrap

Currently the Orbitrap analyzer exists in two variants: a standard trap and a compact high-field trap. In practical traps, the outer electrode is sustained at virtual ground and a voltage of 3.5 or 5 kV is applied to the inner electrode only. As a result, the resolving power at m/z 400 and 768 ms detection time can range from 60,000 for a standard trap at 3.5 kV to 280,000 for a high-field trap at 5 kV and with enhanced FT processing. Like in FTICR-MS the Orbitrap resolving power is proportional to the number of harmonic oscillations of the ions; as a result, the resolving power is inversely proportional to the square root of m/z and proportional to acquisition time. For example, the values above would double for m/z 100 and halve for m/z 1600. For the shortest transient of 96 ms these values would be reduced by 8 times, whereas a resolving power in excess of 1,000,000 has been demonstrated in 3-second transients. [8]

The Orbitrap analyzer can be interfaced to a linear ion trap (LTQ Orbitrap family of instruments), quadrupole mass filter (Q Exactive family) or directly to an ion source (Exactive instrument, all marketed by Thermo Fisher Scientific). In addition, a higher-energy collision cell can be appended to the C-trap, with the further addition of electron-transfer dissociation at its back. [9] Most of these instruments have atmospheric pressure ion sources though an intermediate-pressure MALDI source can also be used (MALDI LTQ Orbitrap). All of these instruments provide a high mass accuracy (<2–3 ppm with external calibrant and <1–2 ppm with internal), a high resolving power (up to 240,000 at m/z 400), a high dynamic range and high sensitivity. [5] [6]


Orbitrap-based mass spectrometers are used in proteomics [7] [10] and are also used in life science mass spectrometry such as metabolism, metabolomics, environmental, [11] food and safety analysis. [12] Most of them are interfaced to liquid chromatography separations, [11] though they are also used with gas chromatography [13] and ambient ionization methods.

See also

Related Research Articles

Mass spectrometry (MS) is an analytical technique that measures the mass-to-charge ratio of ions. The results are typically presented as a mass spectrum, a plot of intensity as a function of the mass-to-charge ratio. Mass spectrometry is used in many different fields and is applied to pure samples as well as complex mixtures.

Tandem mass spectrometry

Tandem mass spectrometry, also known as MS/MS or MS2, is a technique in instrumental analysis where two or more mass analyzers are coupled together using an additional reaction step to increase their abilities to analyse chemical samples. A common use of tandem-MS is the analysis of biomolecules, such as proteins and peptides.

Ion trap

An ion trap is a combination of electric or magnetic fields used to capture charged particles — known as ions — often in a system isolated from an external environment. Ion traps have a number of scientific uses such as mass spectrometry, basic physics research, and controlling quantum states. The two most common types of ion trap are the Penning trap, which forms a potential via a combination of electric and magnetic fields, and the Paul trap which forms a potential via a combination of static and oscillating electric fields.

Quadrupole mass analyzer

The quadrupole mass analyzer (QMS), also known as a transmission quadrupole mass spectrometer, quadrupole mass filter, or quadrupole mass spectrometer, is one type of mass analyzer used in mass spectrometry. As the name implies, it consists of four cylindrical rods, set parallel to each other. In a quadrupole mass spectrometer the quadrupole is the mass analyzer - the component of the instrument responsible for selecting sample ions based on their mass-to-charge ratio (m/z). Ions are separated in a quadrupole based on the stability of their trajectories in the oscillating electric fields that are applied to the rods.

Fourier-transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometry is a type of mass analyzer for determining the mass-to-charge ratio (m/z) of ions based on the cyclotron frequency of the ions in a fixed magnetic field. The ions are trapped in a Penning trap, where they are excited to a larger cyclotron radius by an oscillating electric field orthogonal to the magnetic field. After the excitation field is removed, the ions are rotating at their cyclotron frequency in phase. These ions induce a charge on a pair of electrodes as the packets of ions pass close to them. The resulting signal is called a free induction decay (FID), transient or interferogram that consists of a superposition of sine waves. The useful signal is extracted from this data by performing a Fourier transform to give a mass spectrum.

Matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization

In mass spectrometry, matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization (MALDI) is an ionization technique that uses a laser energy absorbing matrix to create ions from large molecules with minimal fragmentation. It has been applied to the analysis of biomolecules and various organic molecules, which tend to be fragile and fragment when ionized by more conventional ionization methods. It is similar in character to electrospray ionization (ESI) in that both techniques are relatively soft ways of obtaining ions of large molecules in the gas phase, though MALDI typically produces far fewer multi-charged ions.

Ion-mobility spectrometry

Ion-mobility spectrometry (IMS) is an analytical technique used to separate and identify ionized molecules in the gas phase based on their mobility in a carrier buffer gas. Though heavily employed for military or security purposes, such as detecting drugs and explosives, the technique also has many laboratory analytical applications, including the analysis of both small and large biomolecules. IMS instruments are extremely sensitive stand-alone devices, but are often coupled with mass spectrometry, gas chromatography or high-performance liquid chromatography in order to achieve a multi-dimensional separation. They come in various sizes, ranging from a few millimeters to several meters depending on the specific application, and are capable of operating under a broad range of conditions. IMS instruments such as microscale high-field asymmetric-waveform ion-mobility spectrometry can be palm-portable for use in a range of applications including volatile organic compound (VOC) monitoring, biological sample analysis, medical diagnosis and food quality monitoring. Systems operated at higher pressure are often accompanied by elevated temperature, while lower pressure systems (1-20 hPa) do not require heating.

Electron-transfer dissociation

Electron-transfer dissociation (ETD) is a method of fragmenting multiply-charged gaseous macromolecules in a mass spectrometer between the stages of tandem mass spectrometry (MS/MS). Similar to electron-capture dissociation, ETD induces fragmentation of large, multiply-charged cations by transferring electrons to them. ETD is used extensively with polymers and biological molecules such as proteins and peptides for sequence analysis. Transferring an electron causes peptide backbone cleavage into c- and z-ions while leaving labile post translational modifications (PTM) intact. The technique only works well for higher charge state peptide or polymer ions (z>2). However, relative to collision-induced dissociation (CID), ETD is advantageous for the fragmentation of longer peptides or even entire proteins. This makes the technique important for top-down proteomics. The method was developed by Hunt and coworkers at the University of Virginia.

Protein mass spectrometry

Protein mass spectrometry refers to the application of mass spectrometry to the study of proteins. Mass spectrometry is an important method for the accurate mass determination and characterization of proteins, and a variety of methods and instrumentations have been developed for its many uses. Its applications include the identification of proteins and their post-translational modifications, the elucidation of protein complexes, their subunits and functional interactions, as well as the global measurement of proteins in proteomics. It can also be used to localize proteins to the various organelles, and determine the interactions between different proteins as well as with membrane lipids.

Time-of-flight mass spectrometry method of mass spectrometry

Time-of-flight mass spectrometry (TOFMS) is a method of mass spectrometry in which an ion's mass-to-charge ratio is determined via a time of flight measurement. Ions are accelerated by an electric field of known strength. This acceleration results in an ion having the same kinetic energy as any other ion that has the same charge. The velocity of the ion depends on the mass-to-charge ratio. The time that it subsequently takes for the ion to reach a detector at a known distance is measured. This time will depend on the velocity of the ion, and therefore is a measure of its mass-to-charge ratio. From this ratio and known experimental parameters, one can identify the ion.

Top-down proteomics

Top-down proteomics is a method of protein identification that either uses an ion trapping mass spectrometer to store an isolated protein ion for mass measurement and tandem mass spectrometry (MS/MS) analysis or other protein purification methods such as two-dimensional gel electrophoresis in conjunction with MS/MS. Top-down proteomics is capable of identifying and quantitating unique proteoforms through the analysis of intact proteins. The name is derived from the similar approach to DNA sequencing. During mass spectrometry intact proteins are typically ionized by electrospray ionization and trapped in a Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance, quadrupole ion trap or Orbitrap mass spectrometer. Fragmentation for tandem mass spectrometry is accomplished by electron-capture dissociation or electron-transfer dissociation. Effective fractionation is critical for sample handling before mass-spectrometry-based proteomics. Proteome analysis routinely involves digesting intact proteins followed by inferred protein identification using mass spectrometry (MS). Top-down MS (non-gel) proteomics interrogates protein structure through measurement of an intact mass followed by direct ion dissociation in the gas phase.

Laser spray ionization

Laser spray ionization refers to one of several methods for creating ions using a laser interacting with a spray of neutral particles or ablating material to create a plume of charged particles. The ions thus formed can be separated by m/z with mass spectrometry. Laser spray is one of several ion sources that can be coupled with liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry for the detection of larger molecules.

Ion-mobility spectrometry–mass spectrometry

Ion-mobility spectrometry–mass spectrometry (IMS-MS), also known as ion-mobility separation–mass spectrometry, is an analytical chemistry method that separates gas phase ions based on their interaction with a collision gas and their masses. In the first step, the ions are separated according to their mobility through a buffer gas on a millisecond timescale using an ion mobility spectrometer. The separated ions are then introduced into a mass analyzer in a second step where their mass to charge ratios can be determined on a microsecond timescale. The effective separation of analytes achieved with this method makes it widely applicable in the analysis of complex samples such as in proteomics and metabolomics.

Label-free quantification is a method in mass spectrometry that aims to determine the relative amount of proteins in two or more biological samples. Unlike other methods for protein quantification, label-free quantification does not use a stable isotope containing compound to chemically bind to and thus label the protein.

Capillary electrophoresis–mass spectrometry

Capillary electrophoresis–mass spectrometry (CE-MS) is an analytical chemistry technique formed by the combination of the liquid separation process of capillary electrophoresis with mass spectrometry. CE-MS combines advantages of both CE and MS to provide high separation efficiency and molecular mass information in a single analysis. It has high resolving power and sensitivity, requires minimal volume and can analyze at high speed. Ions are typically formed by electrospray ionization, but they can also be formed by matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization or other ionization techniques. It has applications in basic research in proteomics and quantitative analysis of biomolecules as well as in clinical medicine. Since its introduction in 1987, new developments and application has made CE-MS powerful separation and identification technique. Use of CE-MS has increased for protein and peptides analysis and other biomolecules. However, the development of online CE-MS is not without challenges. Understanding of CE, the interface setup, ionization technique and mass detection system is important to tackle problems while coupling capillary electrophoresis to mass spectrometry.

Hybrid mass spectrometer

A hybrid mass spectrometer is a device for tandem mass spectrometry that consists of a combination of two or more m/z separation devices of different types.

Linear ion trap

The linear ion trap (LIT) is a type of ion trap mass spectrometer. In a linear ion trap, ions are confined radially by a two-dimensional radio frequency (RF) field, and axially by stopping potentials applied to end electrodes. Linear ion traps have high injection efficiencies and high ion storage capacities.

Miniature mass spectrometer

A miniature mass spectrometer (MMS) is a type of mass spectrometer (MS) which has small size and weight and can be understood as a portable or handheld device. Current lab-scale mass spectrometers however, usually weigh hundreds of pounds and can cost on the range from thousands to millions of dollars. One purpose of producing MMS is for in situ analysis. This in situ analysis can lead to much simpler mass spectrometer operation such that non-technical personnel like physicians at the bedside, firefighters in a burning factory, food safety inspectors in a warehouse, or airport security at airport checkpoints, etc. can analyze samples themselves saving the time, effort, and cost of having the sample run by a trained MS technician offsite. Although, reducing the size of MS can lead to a poorer performance of the instrument versus current analytical laboratory standards, MMS is designed to maintain sufficient resolutions, detection limits, accuracy, and especially the capability of automatic operation. These features are necessary for the specific in-situ applications of MMS mentioned above.

Matrix-assisted ionization

In mass spectrometry, matrix-assisted ionization is a low fragmentation (soft) ionization technique which involves the transfer of particles of the analyte and matrix sample from atmospheric pressure (AP) to the heated inlet tube connecting the AP region to the vacuum of the mass analyzer. Initial ionization occurs as the pressure drops within the inlet tube.

Digital ion trap

The digital ion trap (DIT) is an quadrupole ion trap driven by digital signals, typically in a rectangular waveform, generated by switching rapidly between discrete DC voltage levels. The digital ion trap has been mainly developed as a mass analyzer.


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