Reversed Phase Chromatography (RPC)

Reversed phase HPLC (RP-HPLC) has a non-polar stationary phase and an aqueous, moderately polar mobile phase. One common stationary phase is a silica which has been surface-modified with RMe2SiCl, where R is a straight chain alkyl group such as C18H37 or C8H17. With such stationary phases, retention time is longer for molecules which are less polar, while polar molecules elute more readily (early in the analysis). An investigator can increase retention times by adding more water to the mobile phase; thereby making the affinity of the hydrophobic analyte for the hydrophobic stationary phase stronger relative to the now more hydrophilic mobile phase. Similarly, an investigator can decrease retention time by adding more organic solvent to the eluent. RP-HPLC is so commonly used that it is often incorrectly referred to as "HPLC" without further specification. The pharmaceutical industry regularly employs RP-HPLC to qualify drugs before their release.

RP-HPLC operates on the principle of hydrophobic interactions, which originates from the high symmetry in the dipolar water structure and plays the most important role in all processes in life science. RP-HPLC allows the measurement of these interactive forces. The binding of the analyte to the stationary phase is proportional to the contact surface area around the non-polar segment of the analyte molecule upon association with the ligand on the stationary phase. This solvophobic effect is dominated by the force of water for "cavity-reduction" around the analyte and the C18-chain versus the complex of both. The energy released in this process is proportional to the surface tension of the eluent (water: 7.3×10−6 J/cm², methanol: 2.2×10−6 J/cm²) and to the hydrophobic surface of the analyte and the ligand respectively. The retention can be decreased by adding a less polar solvent (methanol, acetonitrile) into the mobile phase to reduce the surface tension of water. Gradient elutionuses this effect by automatically reducing the polarity and the surface tension of the aqueous mobile phase during the course of the analysis.

Structural properties of the analyte molecule play an important role in its retention characteristics. In general, an analyte with a larger hydrophobic surface area (C–H, C–C, and generally non-polar atomic bonds, such as S-S and others) is retained longer because it is non-interacting with the water structure. On the other hand, analytes with higher polar surface area (conferred by the presence of polar groups, such as -OH, -NH2, COO or -NH3+ in their structure) are less retained as they are better integrated into water. Such interactions are subject to steric effects in that very large molecules may have only restricted access to the pores of the stationary phase, where the interactions with surface ligands (alkyl chains) take place. Such surface hindrance typically results in less retention.

Retention time increases with hydrophobic (non-polar) surface area. Branched chain compounds elute more rapidly than their corresponding linear isomers because the overall surface area is decreased. Similarly organic compounds with single C–C bonds elute later than those with a C=C or C–C triple bond, as the double or triple bond is shorter than a single C–C bond.

Aside from mobile phase surface tension (organizational strength in eluent structure), other mobile phase modifiers can affect analyte retention. For example, the addition of inorganic salts causes a moderate linear increase in the surface tension of aqueous solutions (ca. 1.5×10−7 J/cm² per Mol for NaCl, 2.5×10−7 J/cm² per Mol for (NH4)2SO4), and because the entropy of the analyte-solvent interface is controlled by surface tension, the addition of salts tend to increase the retention time. This technique is used for mild separation and recovery of proteins and protection of their biological activity in protein analysis (hydrophobic interaction chromatography, HIC).

Another important factor is the mobile phase pH since it can change the hydrophobic character of the analyte. For this reason most methods use a buffering agent, such as sodium phosphate, to control the pH. Buffers serve multiple purposes: control of pH, neutralize the charge on the silica surface of the stationary phase and act as ion pairing agents to neutralize analyte charge. Ammonium formate is commonly added in mass spectrometry to improve detection of certain analytes by the formation of analyte-ammonium adducts. A volatile organic acid such as acetic acid, or most commonly formic acid, is often added to the mobile phase if mass spectrometry is used to analyze the column effluent. Trifluoroacetic acid is used infrequently in mass spectrometry applications due to its persistence in the detector and solvent delivery system, but can be effective in improving retention of analytes such as carboxylic acids in applications utilizing other detectors, as it is a fairly strong organic acid. The effects of acids and buffers vary by application but generally improve chromatographic resolution.

Reversed phase columns are quite difficult to damage compared with normal silica columns; however, many reversed phase columns consist of alkyl derivatized silica particles and should never be used with aqueous bases as these will destroy the underlying silica particle. They can be used with aqueous acid, but the column should not be exposed to the acid for too long, as it can corrode the metal parts of the HPLC equipment. RP-HPLC columns should be flushed with clean solvent after use to remove residual acids or buffers, and stored in an appropriate composition of solvent. The metal content of HPLC columns must be kept low if the best possible ability to separate substances is to be retained. A good test for the metal content of a column is to inject a sample which is a mixture of 2,2'- and 4,4'- bipyridine. Because the 2,2'-bipy can chelate the metal, the shape of the peak for the 2,2'-bipy will be distorted (tailed) when metal ions are present on the surface of the silica.


A chromatogram of complex mixture (perfume water) obtained by reversed phase HPLC