Triboelectric nanogenerators for sensitive nano-coulomb molecular mass spectrometry


Ion sources for molecular mass spectrometry are usually driven by direct current power supplies with no user control over the total charges generated. Here, we show that the output of triboelectric nanogenerators (TENGs) can quantitatively control the total ionization charges in mass spectrometry. The high output voltage of TENGs can generate single- or alternating-polarity ion pulses, and is ideal for inducing nanoelectrospray ionization (nanoESI) and plasma discharge ionization. For a given nanoESI emitter, accurately controlled ion pulses ranging from 1.0 to 5.5 nC were delivered with an onset charge of 1.0 nC. Spray pulses can be generated at a high frequency of 17 Hz (60 ms in period) and the pulse duration is adjustable on-demand between 60 ms and 5.5 s. Highly sensitive (0.6 zeptomole) mass spectrometry analysis using minimal sample (18 pl per pulse) was achieved with a 10 pg ml−1 cocaine sample. We also show that native protein conformation is conserved in TENG-ESI, and that patterned ion deposition on conductive and insulating surfaces is possible.

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Figure 1: Ionization by TENGs.
Figure 2: TENG accurately controls nanoelectrospray ionization.
Figure 3: Enhanced sensitivity under transient TENG high voltage.
Figure 4: Dual-polarity ionization and preservation of native biomolecule conformation.
Figure 5: Ion deposition on various types of surface using the SF-TENG.


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This work was jointly supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the NASA Astrobiology Program, under the NSF Center for Chemical Evolution, CHE-1504217. Research was also supported by the US Department of Energy, Office of Basic Energy Sciences (award DE-FG02-07ER46394) and the National Science Foundation (DMR-1505319).

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A.L., Y.Z., F.M.F. and Z.L.W. conceived the idea, discussed the data and prepared the manuscript. A.L. and Y.Z. performed electrical measurements. Y.Z. fabricated the TENGs. A.L. performed mass spectrometry experiments. H.G. provided assistance with the experiments.

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Correspondence to Zhong Lin Wang or Facundo M. Fernández.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Li, A., Zi, Y., Guo, H. et al. Triboelectric nanogenerators for sensitive nano-coulomb molecular mass spectrometry. Nature Nanotech 12, 481–487 (2017).

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