In the second part of our series on «heavy metal» analysis with solid-state electrodes, the focus lies on the scTRACE Gold electrode. Gold electrodes have been used in electrochemistry for decades. However, the scTRACE Gold has a very special design. Originally developed to improve the voltammetric determination of arsenic, the electrode has also proven to be suitable for the determination of a number of other elements, such as copper, iron, lead, and even the toxic chromium(VI).
How does it work?
The working electrode is a gold micro-wire (Fig. 1), which is thinner than a human hair. This special form of electrode leads to a very short initial preparation time. Different from other gold electrodes, the scTRACE Gold is ready for use within a few minutes.
Another advantage of this electrode is that it comes with the reference and the auxiliary electrode printed on the rear side of the sensor (Fig. 2). That does not only save on costs for the two additional electrodes required in a voltammetric system, it also makes maintenance for the reference electrode obsolete.
Figure 1. Close-up view of the gold micro-wire working electrode on the scTRACE Gold.
Figure 2. Close-up view of the reference and auxiliary electrode on the rear side of the scTRACE Gold.
The high level of sensitivity and a straightforward setup makes voltammetry a valuable tool in drinking water analysis.
Availability of clean drinking water is one of the major concerns of the 21st century. Besides microbiological contaminations, such as bacteria and viruses, the presence of heavy metals in drinking water can be a health risk. The first step in providing clean water is to identify contaminants, since health-threatening concentrations of heavy metals are not visible. For many heavy metals, limit values in drinking water are specified by authorities like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the European Commission. Water quality laboratories often use ICP (inductively coupled plasma) to monitor metal concentrations in drinking water.
Voltammetry is one of the few analysis techniques which offers a comparable sensitivity. Needing only basic infrastructure and low running costs, voltammetry is a viable alternative to monitor some key elements. In the following sections, some selected application examples are shown which demonstrate the capabilities of the scTrace Gold electrode in water analysis.
Arsenic in drinking water
Arsenic gained some global notoriety when water wells were built in Bangladesh to avoid diseases caused by microbiological contaminations in the surface water. Rather than suffering from cholera or hepatitis, people were instead afflicted with chronic arsenic poisoning.
It would be somewhat careless to believe that arsenic is only a problem in less developed countries. Actually, arsenic can be found nearly everywhere in the earth’s crust. Though as Paracelsus already knew, «the concentration makes the poison».
Therefore, the crucial question is how much of this arsenic finds its way into the water table. The WHO (World Health Organization) recommends a concentration of 10 µg/L arsenic as the maximum level in water that is intended for human consumption. This figure is also the legal limit in many countries.
The voltammetric determination of the limit value of 10 µg/L shows a recovery of about 92% (n = 10 determinations) with a relative standard deviation of 6.5%. With a detection limit of 1 µg/L, which is one tenth of the legal limit, voltammetry using the scTRACE Gold electrode offers a reliable and cost-effective way of monitoring the arsenic content of drinking water.
The scTRACE Gold electrode can be used with the 884 Professional VA as well as with the 946 Portable VA Analyzer. The 884 Professional VA is designed for laboratory use. The system is extremely flexible and can be adapted to user requirements. The modular setup also allows a later extension of the instrument from manual to fully automated.
As the name says, the 946 Portable VA Analyzer is intended for mobile use. It allows for on-site determination, directly at the sample source.
Copper in surface water
Under normal circumstances, copper in drinking water is not a problem. The legal limits are comparably high, WHO recommends a maximum concentration of 2 mg/L. An example from the field illustrates where the determination of copper in water can nevertheless be advisable.
The production of distilled alcoholic beverages (e.g., gin, whiskey, brandy, schnapps) involves single or multiple distillation of the raw material, which is done in copper stills. Cleaning out the copper apparatus and draining the rinsing water to a river can contaminate the environment with copper.
Although regulatory limits in effluents are usually higher than in drinking water, the copper limits can still be exceeded if the water is not treated properly prior to discharge. Since pollution from this cleaning is not a continuous process but only occurs periodically, it is difficult to detect and even harder to confirm, especially in less accessible areas.
Here, mobile voltammetry using the scTRACE Gold with the 946 Portable VA Analyzer can make a valuable contribution to the protection of the environment due to the reliable determination of low concentrations of copper.
For a concentration of 5 µg/L, the mean recovery of 10 determinations is approximately 107%, with a relative standard deviation of 2%. Concentrations down to 0.5 µg/L copper in the water can be determined directly at the point of sampling. This allows immediate re-sampling in case of suspicious results, and can furthermore help to locate the source of the pollution. In this way, chances increase to identify the source and hold the responsible entity accountable.
Iron in water
According to WHO, iron does not pose a health concern in levels typically found in drinking water. In contrast, it is an essential element for human nutrition. Nevertheless, many countries specify a maximum contaminant level between 200 µg/L and 300 µg/L.
The reason is simply that higher concentrations have a negative effect on the taste of the water, and will stain laundry and sanitary appliances.
With a detection limit of 10 µg/L, the voltammetric determination of iron offers a straightforward method for monitoring the iron concentration of the water supply. The recovery of a voltammetric determination of 20 µg/L Fe is in the range of 91% (n = 10 determinations) with a relative standard deviation of 1%.
In part two of this series, I introduced the scTRACE Gold electrode which I will also continue to discuss in Part 3. In the next installment, I will focus on applications which are carried out after electrochemical modification of the gold micro-wire.
Post written by Barbara Zumbrägel, Product Manager VA/CVS at Metrohm International Headquarters, Herisau, Switzerland.