Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy

John Marshall

    Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


    A review was presented of the development of Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy (AAS) in the period 1950-1990. The origins of AAS as an analytical technique were shown to be based on the work of astrophysicists, including an early instrument utilising a continuum light source devised by Sir Joseph Norman Lockyer, the first editor of Nature, in the late 19th century. However, atomic absorption was regarded as a curiosity during the first half of the twentieth century until the pioneering work of Walsh (and independently by Alkemade and Milatz) in the 1950s. The key insight of Walsh was to use a spectral line light source instead of a continuum source thereby avoiding the need for a high resolution spectrometer. Atomic absorption offered advantages of both sensitivity and selectivity in comparison to the prevailing technique of flame photometry of the time. The subsequent rapid development of AAS was described in the context of the key enabling developments of instrumentation and the contributions of leading researchers of the period (including those of Walsh, L’vov, Willis, Manning, Koirtyohann, Massmann, Slavin, Ottaway, Hieftje, O’Haver and Harnly). These advances included the use of continuum source and hollow cathode lamp light sources, spectrometer design (single beam, double beam and high resolution echelle optics, spectral background correction), and atomisers -including nitrous oxide/acetylene and air acetylene flames (1960s) , and electrothermal devices, cold vapour and hydride generation (1970s-1980s). The causes of chemical, physical and spectral interference effects on analytical measurements and strategies for overcoming them were also briefly considered. The advent of instrument automation and sequential/simultaneous multi-element AAS analysis in the 1980s were also noted. Finally, a prediction of the death of AAS (Hieftje, 1989) by the year 2000 were shown to be somewhat premature following the commercial introduction of a new high-resolution continuum-source based AAS instrument in 2004.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - 19 Mar 2014


    • atomic spectrometry
    • absorption
    • spectroscopy

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