Main content

## Mass spectrometry of elements

# Worked example: Identifying an element from its mass spectrum

AP.Chem:

SPQ‑1 (EU)

, SPQ‑1.B (LO)

, SPQ‑1.B.1 (EK)

, SPQ‑1.B.2 (EK)

## Video transcript

- [Instructor] So let's say that we have some mystery substance here, and we know that it's a pure element, and we need to figure out what it is. Well, scientists have a method, and we go into the details, or more details, in other videos, called mass, sometimes it's
known as mass spectrometry or mass spectroscopy. It's a technique where you can
take a sample of a substance and think about the various atomic masses of the different isotopes
in that substance. And that's what we have right over here. They tell us the mass
spectrum for an average sample of a pure element is shown below. So let's say it's this pure element. So what this is telling us is, this looks like maybe, I don't know, let's call this 82% of our sample has an atomic mass of 88
universal atomic mass units. About, this looks like
about 7% of our sample has an atomic mass of 87
universal atomic mass units. It looks like 10% has an atomic mass of 86 universal atomic mass units, and it looks like about 1% of our sample has an atomic mass of 84
universal atomic mass units. And so from this information, we can try to estimate what
the average atomic mass of this mystery element is. We could calculate it as 0.82 times 88, plus, let's call this 7%, so 0.07 times 87, plus 10%, 0.1, times 86, plus, let's see, it should add up to 100%. This is 89, and then this gets us to 99, so then another 1%, 0.01 times 84. And so if we were to do this calculation, this is our estimate of the average atomic
mass of this element. We could type this into a calculator and get some number and then look that up on a
periodic table of elements, or we could just try to estimate it. We can see that it's
going to be close to 88 because that's where the
highest percentage is. When we're taking the weighted average, we have the highest
weight right over there. But these other isotopes, these other versions of the element that have a different number of neutrons, which changes its atomic mass, they're going to bring the average down. So our average atomic mass is going to be a little bit less than 88. So let's look up a
periodic table of elements. What element here has an atomic mass a little bit less than 88? Well, yttrium is 88.91, but we know it can't be that
because none of the isotopes have an atomic mass above 88. So we can rule out yttrium. Strontium is looking pretty good. It's exactly what we predicted, a little bit less than 88, and rubidium is a lot less than 88. So our, even if we were
to do the calculation, we could feel confident we're not going to be as low as rubidium. So I'm feeling very
confident just eyeballing it, just estimating, this is going to be a little bit, have an average atomic mass
a little bit less than 88, which tells me that this is strontium.

AP® is a registered trademark of the College Board, which has not reviewed this resource.