Rapid fingerprinting of source and environmental microplastics using direct analysis in real time-high resolution mass spectrometry Academic Article uri icon

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  • Microplastics are ubiquitous in the aquatic and terrestrial environment. To prevent further contamination, methods to determine their sources are needed. Techniques to quantify and characterize microplastics in the environment are still evolving for polymers and the additives and leachable substances embedded therein, which constitute the "chemical fingerprint" of an environmental microplastic. There is a critical need for analytical methods that yield such diagnostic information on environmental microplastics that enables identification of their composition and sources of pollution. This study reports on a novel approach for rapid fingerprinting of environmental microplastics and the screening of additives using Direct Analysis in Real Time (DART)-high resolution mass spectrometry. A variety of plastic samples were investigated, including virgin pre-production pellets, microbeads from personal care products, microplastics found in the aquatic environment, and synthetic fibers. The resulting mass spectra display ∼10,000 discrete peaks, corresponding to plastic additives released by thermal desorption and polymer degradation products generated by pyrolysis. These were used to characterize differences among plastic types, microplastic source materials, and environmental samples. Multivariate statistics and elemental composition analysis approaches were applied to analyze fingerprints from the mass spectra. This promising analytical approach is sensitive, (potentially) high-throughput, and can aid in the elucidation of possible sources of microplastics and perhaps eventually to the analysis of bulk environmental samples for plastics.


  • Zhang, Xianming
  • Mell, Alicia
  • Li, Frederick
  • Thaysen, Clara
  • Musselman, Brian
  • Tice, Joseph
  • Vukovic, Dragan
  • Rochman, Chelsea
  • Helm, Paul A
  • Jobst, Karl

publication date

  • March 2020