Atomic-absorption (AA) spectroscopy uses the absorption of light to measure the concentration of gas-phase atoms. Since samples are usually liquids or solids, the analyte atoms or ions must be vaporized in a flame or graphite furnace.
Applying the Beer-Lambert law directly in AAS is difficult due to variations in the atomization efficiency from the sample matrix, and nonuniformity of concentration and path length of analyte atoms (in graphite furnace AA). Concentration measurements are usually determined from a working curve after calibrating the instrument with standards of known concentration.
The light source is usually a hollow-cathode lamp of the element that is being measured. Lasers are also used in research instruments. Since lasers are intense enough to excite atoms to higher energy levels, they allow AA and atomic fluorescence measurements in a single instrument. The disadvantage of these narrow-band light sources is that only one element is measurable at a time.
AA spectroscopy requires that the analyte atoms be in the gas phase. Ions or atoms in a sample must undergo desolvation and vaporization in a high-temperature source such as a flame or graphite furnace.
Flame AA can only analyze solutions, while graphite furnace AA can accept solutions, slurries, or solid samples.
Flame AA uses a slot type burner to increase the path length, and therefore to increase the total absorbance (see Beer-Lambert law). Sample solutions are usually aspirated with the gas flow into a nebulizing/mixing chamber to form small droplets before entering the flame.
The graphite furnace has several advantages over a flame. It is a much more efficient atomizer than a flame and it can directly accept very small absolute quantities of sample. It also provides a reducing environment for easily oxidized elements. Samples are placed directly in the graphite furnace and the furnace is electrically heated in several steps to dry the sample, ash organic matter, and vaporize the analyte atoms.
AA spectrometers use monochromators and detectors for uv and visible light. The main purpose of the monochromator is to isolate the absorption line from background light due to interferences. Simple dedicated AA instruments often replace the monochromator with a bandpass interference filter. Photomultiplier tubes are the most common detectors for AA spectroscopy.