Photoionization detector

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A photoionization detector or PID is a type of gas detector.

Gas detector

A gas detector is a device that detects the presence of gases in an area, often as part of a safety system. This type of equipment is used to detect a gas leak or other emissions and can interface with a control system so a process can be automatically shut down. A gas detector can sound an alarm to operators in the area where the leak is occurring, giving them the opportunity to leave. This type of device is important because there are many gases that can be harmful to organic life, such as humans or animals.


Typical photoionization detectors measure volatile organic compounds and other gases in concentrations from sub parts per billion to 10 000 parts per million (ppm). The photoionization detector is an efficient and inexpensive detector for many gas and vapor analytes. PIDs produce instantaneous readings, operate continuously, and are commonly used as detectors for gas chromatography or as hand-held portable instruments. Hand-held, battery-operated versions are widely used in military, industrial, and confined working facilities for health and safety. Their primary use is for monitoring possible worker exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as solvents, fuels, degreasers, plastics & their precursors, heat transfer fluids, lubricants, etc. during manufacturing processes and waste handling.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are organic chemicals that have a high vapor pressure at ordinary room temperature. Their high vapor pressure results from a low boiling point, which causes large numbers of molecules to evaporate or sublimate from the liquid or solid form of the compound and enter the surrounding air, a trait known as volatility. For example, formaldehyde, which evaporates from paint and releases from materials like resin, has a boiling point of only –19 °C (–2 °F).

Photoionization ion formation via a photon interacting with a molecule or atom

Photoionization is the physical process in which an ion is formed from the interaction of a photon with an atom or molecule.

Gas chromatography common type of chromatography

Gas chromatography (GC) is a common type of chromatography used in analytical chemistry for separating and analyzing compounds that can be vaporized without decomposition. Typical uses of GC include testing the purity of a particular substance, or separating the different components of a mixture. In some situations, GC may help in identifying a compound. In preparative chromatography, GC can be used to prepare pure compounds from a mixture.

Portable PIDs are used as monitoring solutions for:

Hygiene set of practices performed for the preservation of health

Hygiene is a set of practices performed to preserve health. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), "Hygiene refers to conditions and practices that help to maintain health and prevent the spread of diseases." Personal hygiene refers to maintaining the body's cleanliness.

Safety state of being secure from harm, injury, danger or risk

Safety is the state of being "safe", the condition of being protected from harm or other non-desirable outcomes. Safety can also refer to the control of recognized hazards in order to achieve an acceptable level of risk.

Contamination is the presence of a constituent, impurity, or some other undesirable element that soils, corrupts, infects, makes unfit, or makes inferior a material, physical body, natural environment, workplace, etc.


In a photoionization detector high-energy photons, typically in the vacuum ultraviolet (VUV) range, break molecules into positively charged ions. As compounds enter the detector they are bombarded by high-energy UV photons and are ionized when they absorb the UV light, resulting in ejection of electrons and the formation of positively charged ions. The ions produce an electric current, which is the signal output of the detector. The greater the concentration of the component, the more ions are produced, and the greater the current. The current is amplified and displayed on an ammeter or digital concentration display. The ions can undergo numerous reactions including reaction with oxygen or water vapor, rearrangement, and fragmentation. A few of them may recapture an electron within the detector to reform their original molecules; however only a small portion of the airborne analytes are ionized to begin with so the practical impact of this (if it occurs) is usually negligible. Thus, PIDs are non-destructive and can be used before other sensors in multiple-detector configurations.

The photon is a type of elementary particle, the quantum of the electromagnetic field including electromagnetic radiation such as light, and the force carrier for the electromagnetic force. The photon has zero rest mass and always moves at the speed of light within a vacuum.

Molecule Electrically neutral entity consisting of more than one atom (n > 1); rigorously, a molecule, in which n > 1 must correspond to a depression on the potential energy surface that is deep enough to confine at least one vibrational state

A molecule is an electrically neutral group of two or more atoms held together by chemical bonds. Molecules are distinguished from ions by their lack of electrical charge. However, in quantum physics, organic chemistry, and biochemistry, the term molecule is often used less strictly, also being applied to polyatomic ions.

Electric charge physical property that quantifies an objects interaction with electric fields

Electric charge is the physical property of matter that causes it to experience a force when placed in an electromagnetic field. There are two-types of electric charges; positive and negative. Like charges repel and unlike attract. An object with an absence of net charge is referred to as neutral. Early knowledge of how charged substances interact is now called classical electrodynamics, and is still accurate for problems that do not require consideration of quantum effects.

The PID will only respond to components that have ionization energies similar to or lower than the energy of the photons produced by the PID lamp. As stand-alone detectors, PIDs are broad band and not selective, as these may ionize everything with an ionization energy less than or equal to the lamp photon energy. The more common commercial lamps have photons energy upper limits of approximately 8.4 eV, 10.0 eV, 10.6 eV, and 11.7 eV. The major and minor components of clean air all have ionization energies above 12.0 eV and thus do not interfere significantly in the measurement of VOCs, which typically have ionization energies below 12.0 eV. [1]

Ionization energy minimum amount of energy required to remove an electron from an atom or molecule in the gaseous state

In physics and chemistry, ionization energy (American English spelling) or ionisation energy (British English spelling), denoted Ei, is the minimum amount of energy required to remove the most loosely bound electron, the valence electron, of an isolated neutral gaseous atom or molecule. It is quantitatively expressed as

Lamp types and detectable compounds

PID lamp photon emissions depend on the type of fill gas (which defines the light energy produced) and the lamp window, which affects the energy of photons that can exit the lamp:

Main photon energyFill gasWindow materialComments
11.7 eVArLiFShort-lived
10.6 eVKrMgF2Most robust
10.2 eVH2MgF2
10.0 eVKrCaF2
9.6 eVXeBaF2
8.4 eVXeAl2O3

The 10.6 eV lamp is the most common because it has strong output, has the longest life and responds to many compounds. In approximate order from most sensitive to least sensitive, these compounds include:


The first commercial application of photoionization detection was in 1973 as a hand-held instrument for the purpose of detecting leaks of VOCs, specifically vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), at a chemical manufacturing facility. The photoionization detector was applied to gas chromatography (GC) three years later, in 1976. [2] A PID is highly selective when coupled with a chromatographic technique or a pre-treatment tube such as a benzene-specific tube. Broader cuts of selectivity for easily ionized compounds can be obtained by using a lower energy UV lamp. This selectivity can be useful when analyzing mixtures in which only some of the components are of interest.

The PID is usually calibrated using isobutylene, and other analytes may produce a relatively greater or lesser response on a concentration basis. Although many PID manufacturers provide the ability to program an instrument with a correction factor for quantitative detection of a specific chemical, the broad selectivity of the PID means that the user must know the identity of the gas or vapor species to be measured with high certainty. [1] If a correction factor for benzene is entered into the instrument, but hexane vapor is measured instead, the lower relative detector response (higher correction factor) for hexane would lead to underestimation of the actual airborne concentration of hexane.

Matrix gas effects

With a gas chromatograph, filter tube, or other separation technique upstream of the PID, matrix effects are generally avoided because the analyte enters the detector isolated from interfering compounds.

Response to stand-alone PIDs is generally linear from the ppb range up to at least a few thousand ppm. In this range, response to mixtures of components is also linearly additive. [1] At the higher concentrations, response gradually deviates from linearity because of recombination of oppositely charged ions formed in close proximity and/or 2) absorption of UV light without ionization. [1] The signal produced by a PID may be quenched when measuring in high humidity environments, [3] or when a compound such as methane is present in high concentrations of ≥1% by volume [4] This attenuation is due to the ability of water, methane, and other compounds with high ionization energies to absorb the photons emitted by the UV lamp without leading to the production of an ion current. This reduces the number of energetic photons available to ionize target analytes.

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Geiger–Müller tube

The Geiger–Müller tube or G–M tube is the sensing element of the Geiger counter instrument used for the detection of ionizing radiation. It was named after Hans Geiger, who invented the principle in 1908, and Walther Müller, who collaborated with Geiger in developing the technique further in 1928 to produce a practical tube that could detect a number of different radiation types.

Gas chromatography–mass spectrometry analytical method

Gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) is an analytical method that combines the features of gas-chromatography and mass spectrometry to identify different substances within a test sample. Applications of GC-MS include drug detection, fire investigation, environmental analysis, explosives investigation, and identification of unknown samples, including that of material samples obtained from planet Mars during probe missions as early as the 1970s. GC-MS can also be used in airport security to detect substances in luggage or on human beings. Additionally, it can identify trace elements in materials that were previously thought to have disintegrated beyond identification. Like liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry, it allows analysis and detection even of tiny amounts of a substance.

Proportional counter

The proportional counter is a type of gaseous ionization detector device used to measure particles of ionizing radiation. The key feature is its ability to measure the energy of incident radiation, by producing a detector output pulse that is proportional to the radiation energy absorbed by the detector due to an ionizing event; hence the detector's name. It is widely used where energy levels of incident radiation must be known, such as in the discrimination between alpha and beta particles, or accurate measurement of X-ray radiation dose.

Chemical ionization Ionization technique used in mass spectroscopy

Chemical ionization (CI) is a soft ionization technique used in mass spectrometry. This was first introduced by Burnaby Munson and Frank H. Field in 1966. This technique is a branch of gaseous ion-molecule chemistry. Reagent gas molecules are ionized by electron ionization, which subsequently react with analyte molecules in the gas phase in order to achieve ionization. Negative chemical ionization (NCI), charge-exchange chemical ionization and atmospheric-pressure chemical ionization (APCI) are some of the common variations of this technique. CI has several important applications in identification, structure elucidation and quantitation of organic compounds. Beside the applications in analytical chemistry, the usefulness in chemical ionization extends toward biochemical, biological and medicinal fields as well.

Gaseous ionization detector

Gaseous ionization detectors are radiation detection instruments used in particle physics to detect the presence of ionizing particles, and in radiation protection applications to measure ionizing radiation.

Flame ionization detector Type of gas detector used in gas chromatography

A flame ionization detector (FID) is a scientific instrument that measures analyte in a gas stream. It is frequently used as a detector in gas chromatography. The measurement of ion per unit time make this a mass sensitive instrument. Standalone FIDs can also be used in applications such as landfill gas monitoring, fugitive emissions monitoring and internal combustion engine emissions measurement in stationary or portable instruments.

A helium ionization detector (HID) is a type of detector used in gas chromatography.

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The thermal conductivity detector (TCD), also known as a katharometer, is a bulk property detector and a chemical specific detector commonly used in gas chromatography. This detector senses changes in the thermal conductivity of the column effluent and compares it to a reference flow of carrier gas. Since most compounds have a thermal conductivity much less than that of the common carrier gases of helium or hydrogen, when an analyte elutes from the column the effluent thermal conductivity is reduced, and a detectable signal is produced.

Sample preparation for mass spectrometry is used for the optimization of a sample for analysis in a mass spectrometer (MS). Each ionization method has certain factors that must be considered for that method to be successful, such as volume, concentration, sample phase, and composition of the analyte solution. Quite possibly the most important consideration in sample preparation is knowing what phase the sample must be in for analysis to be successful. In some cases the analyte itself must be purified before entering the ion source. In other situations, the matrix, or everything in the solution surrounding the analyte, is the most important factor to consider and adjust. Often, sample preparation itself for mass spectrometry can be avoided by coupling mass spectrometry to a chromatography method, or some other form of separation before entering the mass spectrometer. In some cases, the analyte itself must be adjusted so that analysis is possible, such as in protein mass spectrometry, where usually the protein of interest is cleaved into peptides before analysis, either by in-gel digestion or by proteolysis in solution.

Desorption atmospheric pressure photoionization

Desorption atmospheric pressure photoionization (DAPPI) is an ambient ionization technique for mass spectrometry that uses hot solvent vapor for desorption in conjunction with photoionization. Ambient Ionization techniques allow for direct analysis of samples without pretreatment. The direct analysis technique, such as DAPPI, eliminates the extraction steps seen in most nontraditional samples. DAPPI can be used to analyze bulkier samples, such as, tablets, powders, resins, plants, and tissues. The first step of this technique utilizes a jet of hot solvent vapor. The hot jet thermally desorbs the sample from a surface. The vaporized sample is then ionized by the vacuum ultraviolet light and consequently sampled into a mass spectrometer. DAPPI can detect a range of both polar and non-polar compounds, but is most sensitive when analyzing neutral or non-polar compounds. This technique also offers a selective and soft ionization for highly conjugated compounds.

A chromatography detector is a device used in gas chromatography (GC) or liquid chromatography (LC) to detect components of the mixture being eluted off the chromatography column. There are two general types of detectors: destructive and non-destructive. The destructive detectors perform continuous transformation of the column effluent with subsequent measurement of some physical property of the resulting material. The non-destructive detectors are directly measuring some property of the column eluent and thus affords greater analyte recovery.

Photoelectrochemical processes are processes in photoelectrochemistry; they usually involve transforming light into other forms of energy. These processes apply to photochemistry, optically pumped lasers, sensitized solar cells, luminescence, and photochromism.

A pulsed discharge ionization detector is a detector for gas chromatography that utilizes a stable, low powered, pulsed DC discharge in helium as an ionization source.

Atmospheric pressure laser ionization is an atmospheric pressure ionization method for mass spectrometry (MS). Laser light in the UV range is used to ionize molecules in a resonance-enhanced multiphoton ionization (REMPI) process. It is a selective and sensitive ionization method for aromatic and polyaromatic compounds. Atmospheric photoionization is the latest in development of atmospheric ionization methods.

The Polyarc reactor is a scientific instrument for the measurement of organic molecules. The reactor is paired with a flame ionization detector (FID) in a gas chromatograph (GC) to improve the sensitivity of the FID and give a uniform detector response for all organic molecules (GC-Polyarc/FID).

Resonance ionization

Resonance ionization is a process in optical physics used to excite a specific atom beyond its ionization potential to form an ion using a beam of photons irradiated from a pulsed laser light. In resonance ionization, the absorption or emission properties of the emitted photons are not considered, rather only the resulting excited ions are mass-selected, detected and measured. Depending on the laser light source used, one electron can be removed from each atom so that resonance ionization produces an efficient selectivity in two ways: elemental selectivity in ionization and isotopic selectivity in measurement.


  1. 1 2 3 4 Haag, W.R. and Wrenn, C.: The PID Handbook - Theory and Applications of Direct-Reading Photoionization Detectors (PIDs), 2nd. Ed., San Jose, CA: RAE Systems Inc. (2006)
  2. Driscoll, J.N., and J.B. Clarici: Ein neuer Photoionisationsdetektor für die Gas-Chromatographie. Chromatographia, 9:567-570 (1976).
  3. Smith, P.A., Jackson Lepage, C., Harrer, K.L., and P.J. Brochu: Handheld photoionization instruments for quantitative detection of sarin vapor and for rapid qualitative screening of contaminated objects. J. Occ. Env. Hyg. 4:729-738 (2007).
  4. Nyquist, J.E., Wilson, D.L., Norman, L.A., and R.B. Gammage: Decreased sensitivity of photoionization detector total organic vapor detectors in the presence of methane. Am. Ind. Hyg. Assoc. J., 51:326-330 (1990).