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Mass spectrometry as a tool to advance polymer science


In contrast to natural polymers, which have existed for billions of years, the first well-understood synthetic polymers date back to just over one century ago. Nevertheless, this relatively short period has seen vast progress in synthetic polymer chemistry, which can now afford diverse macromolecules with varying structural complexities. To keep pace with this synthetic progress, there have been commensurate developments in analytical chemistry, where mass spectrometry has emerged as the pre-eminent technique for polymer analysis. This Perspective describes present challenges associated with the mass-spectrometric analysis of synthetic polymers, in particular the desorption, ionization and structural interrogation of high-molar-mass macromolecules, as well as strategies to lower spectral complexity. We critically evaluate recent advances in technology in the context of these challenges and suggest how to push the field beyond its current limitations. In this context, the increasingly important role of high-resolution mass spectrometry is emphasized because of its unrivalled ability to describe unique species within polymer ensembles, rather than to report the average properties of the ensemble.

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Fig. 1: Influence of different pre-separations on the spectral complexity of a hypothetical mixture of polymers.
Fig. 2: Principles behind the three most widespread ionization techniques in polymer MS.
Fig. 3: The required resolving power and the optimum choice of mass analyser are highly sample dependent.
Fig. 4: Tandem mass spectrometry can be used to sequence polymers.
Fig. 5: Ion-mobility spectrometry exploits the m/z, size and shape dependence of ion diffusion to separate analytes.


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C.B.-K. acknowledges funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC) in the form of a Laureate Fellowship (FL170100014) enabling his photochemical research program, as well as key support from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). The authors thank B. Poad and D. Marshall (Central Analytical Research Facility (CARF), QUT) for fruitful discussions.

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All authors researched data for the article and contributed to discussion of content and writing. K.D.B. made the figures and reviewed/edited the manuscript before submission.

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De Bruycker, K., Welle, A., Hirth, S. et al. Mass spectrometry as a tool to advance polymer science. Nat Rev Chem 4, 257–268 (2020).

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