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What is Chromatography?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 24, 2024
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Chromatography is a process that can be used to isolate the various components of a mixture. There are a number of different types in use, including gas, liquid, paper, and gel permeation chromatography, and this process can get quite involved, especially with complex mixtures. It is also an extremely useful addition to a variety of fields, including pure and applied sciences, forensics, and athletics, among others.

The process relies on the fact that different molecules will behave in different ways when they are dissolved in a solvent and moved across an absorbent medium. In a very simple example, one could take ink and make a mark on a piece of paper. The paper could be dipped into water, and the capillary action of the water would pull the ink through the paper. As the ink moved, its ingredients would separate out, revealing a distinctive pattern that could be used to determine the components of the ink.

In preparative chromatography, researchers separate individual components of a compound for use in the lab or in research. This process can get extremely precise: using this technique, for example, scientists can isolate two strands of DNA that differ by only a few pieces of information. In analytical chromatography, the goal is to figure out what is in a sample. Drug testing relies on this technique to isolate illicit substances in urine and blood samples, for instance.

In the example above with a dot of ink and a piece of paper, the basic concepts behind the process are illustrated, although most methods are a bit more sophisticated. It is important to choose the right solvent or carrier fluid to dissolve the sample in and to select an appropriate solid medium to pass the sample through. Poor choices can result in confusing or inaccurate results, and the procedure requires substantial skills on the part of the operator to ensure that it returns useful data.

The result of a session is a chromatograph, a printout that provides information about the substance being analyzed. The printout usually takes the form of a chart with a series of troughs and peaks. Each peak represents a substance present in the sample, and the concentrations of these substances can be determined by looking at the height and width of the peak. Computerized chromatography machines generate such printouts automatically as the data is produced, and they can also be made by hand.

AllTheScience is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllTheScience researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Taha — On Jan 24, 2012

Thank you for your information.

By anon162338 — On Mar 23, 2011

thanks. Now i understand!

By anon159692 — On Mar 13, 2011

thank you. i now understand what chromatography is.

By anon89523 — On Jun 10, 2010

Cool! I didn't know that. Anyway, thanks. it helped me with my biology lab report.

By anon88137 — On Jun 03, 2010

i can't believe they asked me this on my year seven half yearly. thanks guys, it helped. i got 100 percent.

By anon87518 — On May 30, 2010

It was kind of useful for some things. overall it helped me.

By anon80172 — On Apr 26, 2010

thanks! finally done with my chemistry assignment!

By anon73939 — On Mar 30, 2010

thank you. this information helped a lot.

By anon73488 — On Mar 27, 2010

Thank you for giving this information. it was very useful.

By anon68509 — On Mar 02, 2010

Thanks for posting the information. It helped.

By anon68143 — On Mar 01, 2010

very useful. thank you geek.

By anon60699 — On Jan 15, 2010

Thank you for the information, it helped me a great deal.

By anon58822 — On Jan 04, 2010

it was good and helped.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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