Tag Archives: mass spectrometry

The Practical Chemist

Instrumentation for Heavy Metals Analysis in Cannabis

By Chris English
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Determination of Toxic Metals in Cannabis

Heavy metals are common environmental contaminants often resulting from mining operations, industrial waste, automotive emissions, coal fired power plants, amount other sources. Several remediation strategies exist that are common for the reduction/elimination of metals in the environment. Phytoremediation is one method for removing metals from soil, utilizing plants to uptake metals which then bioaccumulate in the plant matter. In one study, cesium concentrations were found to be 8,000 times greater in the plant roots compared to the surrounding water in the soil. In 1998, cannabis was specifically tested at the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site for its ability to remediate the contaminated soil. These examples demonstrate that cannabis must be carefully cultivated to avoid the uptake of toxic metals. Possible sources would not only include the growing environment, but also materials such as fertilizers. Many states publish metal content in fertilizer products allowing growers to select the cleanest product for their plants. For cannabis plant material and concentrates several states have specific limits for cadmium (Cd), Lead (Pb), Arsenic (As) and Mercury (Hg), based on absolute limits in product or daily dosage by body weight.

Analytical Approaches to Metals Determination

Inductively Coupled Plasma, Ionized Argon gas stream. Photo Courtesy: Sigma via Wikimedia Commons

Flame Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy (Flame AA) and Graphite Furnace Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy (GFAA) are both techniques that determine both the identity and quantity of specific elements. For both of these techniques, the absorption in intensity of a specific light source is measured following the atomization of the sample digestate using either a flame or an electrically heated graphite tube. Reference standards are analyzed prior to the samples in order to develop a calibration that relates the concentration of each element relative to its absorbance. For these two techniques, each element is often determined individually, and the light source, most commonly a hollow cathode lamp (HLC) or electrodeless discharge lamp (EDL) are specific for each element. The two most common types of Atomic Emission Spectroscopy (AES) are; Inductively Coupled Plasma Optical Emission Spectroscopy (ICP-OES) and ICP-Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS). Both of these techniques use an argon plasma for atomization of the sample digestates. This argon plasma is maintained using a radio frequency generator that is capable of atomization and excitation of the majority of the elements on the periodic table. Due to the considerably higher energy of the plasma-based instruments, they are more capable than the flame or furnace based systems for measurement of a wide range of elements. Additionally, they are based on optical emission, or mass spectrometric detection, and are capable of analysis of all elements at essentially the same time.

Technique Selection

Flame AA is easy to use, inexpensive and can provide reasonable throughput for a limited number of elements. However, changes to light sources and optical method parameters are necessary when determining different metals. GFAA is also limited by similar needs to change the light sources, though it is capable of greater sensitivity for most elements as compared to flame AA. Runtimes are on the order of three minutes per element for each sample, which can result in lower laboratory throughput and greater sample digestate consumption. While the sensitivity of the absorption techniques is reasonable, the dynamic range can be more limited requiring re-analyses and dilutions to get the sample within the calibration range. ICP-OES allows the simultaneous analysis of over 70 elements in approximately a minute per sample with a much greater linear dynamic range. ICP-OES instruments cost about 2-5 times more than AA instruments. ICP-MS generally has the greatest sensitivity (sub-parts-per-trillion, for some elements) with the ability to determine over 70 elements per minute. Operator complexity, instrument expense and MS stability, as well as cost are some of the disadvantages. The US FDA has a single laboratory validated method for ICP-MS for elements in food using microwave assisted digestion, and New York State recently released a method for the analysis of metals in medical cannabis products by ICP-MS (NYS DOH LINC-250).

The use of fertilizers, and other materials, with low metal content is one step necessary to providing a safe product and maintaining customer confidence. The state-by-state cannabis regulations will continue to evolve which will require instrumentation that is flexible enough to quickly accommodate added metals to the regulatory lists, lower detection limits while adding a high level of confidence in the data.

Chris English
The Practical Chemist

Accurate Detection of Residual Solvents in Cannabis Concentrates

By Chris English
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Chris English

Edibles and vape pens are rapidly becoming a sizable portion of the cannabis industry as various methods of consumption popularize beyond just smoking dried flower. These products are produced using cannabis concentrates, which come in the form of oils, waxes or shatter (figure 1). Once the cannabinoids and terpenes are removed from the plant material using solvents, the solvent is evaporated leaving behind the product. Extraction solvents are difficult to remove in the low percent range so the final product is tested to ensure leftover solvents are at safe levels. While carbon dioxide and butane are most commonly used, consumer concern over other more toxic residual solvents has led to regulation of acceptable limits. For instance, in Colorado the Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) updated the state’s acceptable limits of residual solvents on January 1st, 2017.

Headspace Analysis

Figure 1: Shatter can be melted and dissolved in a high molecular weight solvent for headspace analysis (HS). Photo Courtesy of Cal-Green Solutions.

Since the most suitable solvents are volatile, these compounds are not amenable to HPLC methods and are best suited to gas chromatography (GC) using a thick stationary phase capable of adequate retention and resolution of butanes from other target compounds. Headspace (HS) is the most common analytical technique for efficiently removing the residual solvents from the complex cannabis extract matrix. Concentrates are weighed out into a headspace vial and are dissolved in a high molecular weight solvent such as dimethylformamide (DMF) or 1,3-dimethyl-3-imidazolidinone (DMI). The sealed headspace vial is heated until a stable equilibrium between the gas phase and the liquid phase occurs inside the vial. One milliliter of gas is transferred from the vial to the gas chromatograph for analysis. Another approach is full evaporation technique (FET), which involves a small amount of sample sealed in a headspace vial creating a single-phase gas system. More work is required to validate this technique as a quantitative method.

Gas Chromatographic Detectors

The flame ionization detector (FID) is selective because it only responds to materials that ionize in an air/hydrogen flame, however, this condition covers a broad range of compounds. When an organic compound enters the flame; the large increase in ions produced is measured as a positive signal. Since the response is proportional to the number of carbon atoms introduced into the flame, an FID is considered a quantitative counter of carbon atoms burned. There are a variety of advantages to using this detector such as, ease of use, stability, and the largest linear dynamic range of the commonly available GC detectors. The FID covers a calibration of nearly 5 orders of magnitude. FIDs are inexpensive to purchase and to operate. Maintenance is generally no more complex than changing jets and ensuring proper gas flows to the detector. Because of the stability of this detector internal standards are not required and sensitivity is adequate for meeting the acceptable reporting limits. However, FID is unable to confirm compounds and identification is only based on retention time. Early eluting analytes have a higher probability of interferences from matrix (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Resolution of early eluting compounds by headspace – flame ionization detection (HS-FID). Chromatogram Courtesy of Trace Analytics.

Mass Spectrometry (MS) provides unique spectral information for accurately identifying components eluting from the capillary column. As a compound exits the column it collides with high-energy electrons destabilizing the valence shell electrons of the analyte and it is broken into structurally significant charged fragments. These fragments are separated by their mass-to-charge ratios in the analyzer to produce a spectral pattern unique to the compound. To confirm the identity of the compound the spectral fingerprint is matched to a library of known spectra. Using the spectral patterns the appropriate masses for quantification can be chosen. Compounds with higher molecular weight fragments are easier to detect and identify for instance benzene (m/z 78), toluene (m/z 91) and the xylenes (m/z 106), whereas low mass fragments such as propane (m/z 29), methanol (m/z 31) and butane (m/z 43) are more difficult and may elute with matrix that matches these ions. Several disadvantages of mass spectrometers are the cost of equipment, cost to operate and complexity. In addition, these detectors are less stable and require an internal standard and have a limited dynamic range, which can lead to compound saturation.

Regardless of your method of detection, optimized HS and GC conditions are essential to properly resolve your target analytes and achieve the required detection limits. While MS may differentiate overlapping peaks the chances of interference of low molecular weight fragments necessitates resolution of target analytes chromatographically. FID requires excellent resolution for accurate identification and quantification.

The Practical Chemist

Pesticide Analysis in Cannabis and Related Products: Part 3

By Julie Kowalski
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As mentioned in Part 1, pesticides residue analysis is very challenging especially considering the complexity of cannabis and the variety of flower, concentrates and infused products. In addition, pesticides are tested at low levels typically at parts-per-billion (ppb). For example, the food safety industry often uses 10 ppb as a benchmark limit of quantification. To put that in perspective, current pesticides limits in cannabis range from 10 ppb default (Massachusetts Regulatory Limit) to a more typical range of 100 ppb to 2 ppm in other states. Current testing is also complicated by evolving regulations.

Despite these challenges, adaptation of methods used by the food safety industry have proved successful for testing pesticides in cannabis. These methods typically rely on mass spectrometric detection paired with sample preparation methods to render the sample clean enough to yield quality data.

Pesticide Analysis Methods: Sample preparation and Analytical Technique Strategy

Generally, methods can be divided into two parts; sample preparation and analytical testing where both are critical to the success of pesticide residue testing and are inextricably linked. Reliance on mass spectrometric techniques like tandem mass spectrometry and high resolution accurate mass (HRAM) mass spectrometry is attributed to the substantial sensitivity and selectivity provided. The sensitivity and selectivity achievable by the detector largely dictates the sample preparation that will be required. The more sensitive and selective the detector, the less rigorous and resource intensive sample preparation can be.

Analytical technique: Gas and Liquid Chromatography Tandem Mass Spectrometry 

The workhorse approach for pesticide residue analysis involves using gas chromatography and liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry (MS/MS) in the ion transition mode. This ion transition mode, often referred to as multiple reaction monitoring (MRM) or selected reaction monitoring (SRM), adds the selectivity and sensitivity needed for trace level analysis. Essentially, a pesticide precursor ion is fragmented into product ions. The detector monitors the signal for a specified product ion known to have originated from the pesticide precursor ion. This allows the signal to be corrected, associated with the analyte and not with other matrix components in the sample. In addition, because only ions meeting the precursor/product ion requirements are passed to the detector with little noise, there is a benefit to the observed signal to noise ratio allowing better sensitivity than in other modes. Even though ion transitions are specific, there is the possibility a matrix interference that also demonstrates that same ion transition could result in a false positive. Multiple ion transitions for each analyte are monitored to determine an ion ratio. The ion ratio should remain consistent for a specific analyte and is used to add confidence to analyte identification.

The best choice for pesticide analysis between gas chromatography (GC) and liquid chromatography (LC) is often questioned. To perform comprehensive pesticide screening similar to the way the food safety market approaches this challenge requires both techniques. It is not uncommon for screening methods to test for several hundred pesticides that vary in physiochemical properties. It may be possible that with a smaller list of analytes, only one technique will be needed but often in order to reach the low limits for pesticide residues both GC and LC are required.

Modified QuEChERS extraction using 1.5 grams of cannabis flower. Courtesy of Julie Kowalski (Restek Corporation), Jeff Dahl (Shimadzu Scientific Instruments) and Derek Laine (Trace Analytics).
Modified QuEChERS extraction using 1.5 grams of cannabis flower. Courtesy of Julie Kowalski (Restek Corporation), Jeff Dahl (Shimadzu Scientific Instruments) and Derek Laine (Trace Analytics).

Analytical technique: Sample Preparation

Less extensive sample preparation is possible when combined with sensitive and selective detectors like MS/MS. One popular method is the QuEChERS approach. QuEChERS stands for Quick, Easy, Cheap, Effective, Rugged and Safe. It consists of a solvent extraction/salting out step followed by a cleanup using dispersive solid phase extraction. Originally designed for fruit and vegetable pesticide testing, QuEChERS has been modified and used for many other commodity types including cannabis. Although QuEChERS is a viable method, sometimes more cleanup is needed and this can be done with cartridge solid phase extraction. This cleanup functions differently and is more labor intensive, but results in a cleaner extract. A cleaner extract helps to secure quality data and is sometimes needed for difficult analyses.