Journal of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry

Electrospray ionization mechanisms for large polyethylene glycol chains studied through tandem ion mobility spectrometry.

PMID 24924517


Ion mobility mass spectrometry (IMS-MS) is used to investigate the abundance pattern, n(z)(m) of poly-(ethyleneglycol) (PEG) electrosprayed from water/methanol as a function of mass and charge state. We examine n(z)(m) patterns from a diversity of solution cations, primarily dimethylammonium and triethylammonium. The ability of PEG chains to initially attach to various cations in the spraying chamber, and to retain them (or not) on entering the MS, provide valuable clues on the ionization mechanism. Single chains form in highly charged and extended shapes in most buffers. But the high initial charge they hold under atmospheric pressure is lost on transit to the vacuum system for large cations. In contrast, aggregates of two or more chains carry in all buffers at most the Rayleigh charge of a water drop of the same volume. This shows either that they form via Dole's charge residue mechanism, or that highly charged and extended aggregates are ripped apart by Coulombic repulsion. IMS-IMS experiments in He confirm these findings, and provide new mechanistic insights on the stability of aggregates. When collisionally activated, initially globular dimers are stable. However, slightly nonglobular dimers projecting out a linear appendix are segregated into two monomeric chains. The breakup of a charged dimer is therefore a multi-step process, similar to the Fenn-Consta polymer extrusion mechanism. The highest activation barrier is associated to the first step, where a short chain segment carrying a single charge escapes (ion-evaporates) from a charged drop, leading then to gradual field extrusion of the whole chain out of the drop.