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Difference Between GC and HPLC - Featured Images

What is the Difference Between GC and HPLC?

Gas chromatography (GC) and high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) are both effective ways of analyzing volatile compounds in a lab. However, they have distinct characteristics that make them suitable for different types of samples and applications.

In this article, we'll explore GC's key features, common applications, and comparisons to HPLC.

Key Points of Article

  • GC excels at analyzing volatile compounds quickly, which is ideal for environmental analysis, forensic science, pharmaceutical testing, agricultural chemistry, biochemical research, and more.
  • HPLC handles non-volatile and thermally sensitive compounds, which are crucial for pharmaceutical and biochemical research.
  • Choosing between GC and HPLC depends on the sample's volatility, molecular weight, and thermal sensitivity.
  • GC offers faster analysis times, lower costs, and high sensitivity for volatile compounds.
  • HPLC provides versatility, biomolecular compatibility, gentler operating conditions, and diverse detection options.
  • Birch Biotech provides top-quality LC-MS and HPLC-grade products to ensure accurate and reliable analytical results. Contact us for more information.

What is Gas Chromatography (GC)?

Gas chromatography is a versatile analytical technique that separates and analyzes volatile compounds in the gas phase. 

In GC, the sample is vaporized and carried through a column by an inert carrier gas, such as helium or nitrogen. The column contains a stationary phase that interacts with the sample components, causing them to elute at different times based on their chemical properties and affinity for the stationary phase.

GC offers several advantages.

  • Fast Analysis Times: GC separations are typically faster than HPLC due to the low viscosity and high diffusivity of the mobile phase, which allows for rapid mass transfer and efficient separations. However, it may take longer for more complex mixtures.
  • Ideal for Volatile Compounds: GC excels at analyzing compounds with low boiling points since it typically uses high temperatures, making it the go-to technique for applications involving volatile organic compounds (VOCs), essential oils, and other low molecular weight substances.
  • High Sensitivity: GC can detect trace levels of analytes, with detectors such as flame ionization detectors (FID) and mass spectrometers (MS) providing excellent sensitivity and selectivity.

Examples of GC Applications

GC finds widespread use across various industries and research fields. Some common applications include:

  • Environmental Monitoring: GC is used to analyze air, water, and soil samples for environmental pollutants, such as pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
  • Petrochemical Analysis: The petroleum industry relies heavily on GC to characterize crude oil, gasoline, and other petroleum products, as well as for quality control and process monitoring.
  • Forensic Investigations: GC plays a crucial role in forensic science, helping identify and quantify drugs, poisons, and other toxic substances in biological samples, as well as analyzing fire debris and explosives residues.
  • Food and Flavor Analysis: GC is used to analyze the volatile components of food and beverages, such as essential oils, aroma compounds, and off-flavors, to ensure product quality and authenticity.
  • Pharmaceutical Analysis: GC is employed in the pharmaceutical industry for the analysis of volatile impurities, residual solvents, and drug degradation products.

What is High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC)?

HPLC is a powerful analytical technique that separates and analyzes compounds dissolved in a liquid mobile phase. HPLC pumps the sample solution through a column, separating its components based on their interactions with the stationary phase. As the sample components interact with the stationary phase, they elute from the column at different times, allowing for their separation and detection.

HPLC offers several advantages over GC:

  • Versatility: HPLC can handle a wide range of compounds, including non-volatile, thermally labile, and high molecular weight substances that are not suitable for GC analysis.
  • Compatibility with Aqueous Samples: HPLC is the method of choice for analyzing water-soluble compounds, as it can work with aqueous mobile phases and tolerate high percentages of water in the sample.
  • Variety of Detection Methods: HPLC can be coupled with various detectors, such as UV-Vis, fluorescence, refractive index, photodiode array, and mass spectrometry, allowing for the selective and sensitive detection of different analytes.

Examples of HPLC Applications

  • Pharmaceutical Analysis: HPLC is widely used in the pharmaceutical industry for drug development, quality control, and impurity profiling. It can analyze active pharmaceutical ingredients, excipients, and drug formulations, ensuring product safety and efficacy.
  • Food and Beverage Testing: HPLC is employed in the food industry to analyze nutrients, additives, contaminants, and natural compounds in various food matrices. It helps ensure food safety, quality, and compliance with regulations.
  • Biochemical Research: HPLC plays a vital role in biochemical research, enabling the separation and purification of proteins, peptides, nucleic acids, and other biomolecules. It is used in proteomics, metabolomics, and biomarker discovery studies.
  • Environmental Monitoring: HPLC analyzes pollutants, such as pesticides, herbicides, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), in water, soil, and sediment samples. It helps assess environmental contamination and monitor remediation efforts.
  • Forensic Analysis: HPLC is employed in forensic laboratories to identify and quantify drugs, poisons, and other toxic substances in biological samples and to analyze trace evidence, such as dyes, inks, and fibers.

Difference Between GC and HPLC - Supporting Image

Key Differences Between GC and HPLC

While both GC and HPLC are powerful separation techniques, they have distinct differences that make them suitable for different types of analyses. Understanding these differences can help you choose the most appropriate method for your specific application.

Varying Mobile Phase

One of the most fundamental differences between GC and HPLC lies in the nature of the mobile phase. In GC, the mobile phase is an inert gas, such as helium, argon, or nitrogen. This gas carries the vaporized sample through the column, where the separation occurs based on the interactions between the sample components and the stationary phase. 

In contrast, HPLC uses a liquid mobile phase, typically a mixture of solvents, to transport the sample through the column. The composition of the mobile phase can be adjusted to optimize the separation and selectivity of the analysis. Common HPLC solvents include water, acetonitrile, methanol, and isopropanol.

Versatility of Sample State

The state of the sample is another key difference between GC and HPLC. GC is suitable for analyzing volatile compounds that can be easily vaporized without decomposition. This includes low molecular weight substances, such as essential oils, fragrances, and certain environmental pollutants.

On the other hand, HPLC can analyze a wider range of compounds, including both volatile and non-volatile substances. It is particularly useful for analyzing high molecular weight compounds, such as proteins, peptides, and polymers, as well as thermally labile substances that would degrade under the high temperatures used in GC.

Different Operating Temperatures

The operating temperature is another distinguishing factor between GC and HPLC. GC typically operates at high temperatures, often ranging from 50°C to 300°C, to continuously volatilize the sample throughout the analysis. The temperature can be programmed to change during the run to optimize the separation.

In contrast, HPLC generally operates at room temperature or slightly above, usually not exceeding 60°C. This lower temperature range makes HPLC suitable for analyzing temperature-sensitive compounds that might degrade at higher temperatures.

Column Dimensions

GC and HPLC columns also differ in their dimensions. GC columns are typically longer and narrower, with lengths ranging from 10 to 100 meters and internal diameters of 0.10 to 0.53 mm. The long, narrow columns provide high separation efficiency and resolution, allowing for the analysis of complex mixtures.

HPLC columns are generally shorter and wider, with typical lengths ranging from 50 to 300 mm and internal diameters of 2.1 to 4.6 mm. The wider columns accommodate higher flow rates and provide better sample loading capacity, making HPLC suitable for preparative and semi-preparative applications.

Detector Types

GC and HPLC also employ some common and a few different types of detectors to monitor the separated compounds. Common GC detectors include:

  • Flame Ionization Detector (FID): Ideal for detecting organic compounds, FID is sensitive, linear, and widely used in GC.
  • Thermal Conductivity Detector (TCD): A universal detector that responds to differences in thermal conductivity between the analyte and the carrier gas.
  • Mass Spectrometer (MS): Provides structural information and enables the identification and quantification of unknown compounds.

In HPLC, frequently used detectors include:

  • Ultraviolet-Visible (UV-Vis) Detector: Detects compounds that absorb light in the UV or visible range, making it suitable for a wide range of applications.
  • Refractive Index (RI) Detector: A universal detector that responds to changes in the refractive index of the mobile phase, useful for detecting compounds that do not absorb UV light.
  • Mass Spectrometer (MS): MS, used for both GC and HPLC, offers high sensitivity and selectivity, providing structural information for compound identification and quantification.

Advantages of GC over HPLC

While both GC and HPLC have their strengths, GC offers several advantages that make it the preferred choice for certain applications.

  • Faster Analysis Times: GC separations are typically faster than HPLC due to the low viscosity and high diffusivity of the mobile phase, which allows for rapid mass transfer and efficient separations. 
  • Lower Cost: GC generally requires less expensive solvents and simpler instrumentation than HPLC. The cost of GC consumables, such as carrier gases and columns, is often lower than the high-purity solvents and specialized columns used in HPLC. This makes GC a more cost-effective option for many laboratories.
  • Ideal for Volatile Compounds: GC excels at analyzing compounds with low boiling points, making it the go-to technique for applications involving volatile organic compounds (VOCs), essential oils, and other low molecular weight substances. If you're working with volatile samples, GC is likely the best choice for your analysis.

Benefits of HPLC over GC

HPLC offers several unique benefits that make it a valuable tool in your analytical arsenal.

  • Versatility: HPLC can handle a much broader range of compounds compared to GC. It's not limited to volatile substances, allowing you to analyze non-volatile and thermally labile compounds with ease. 
  • Compatibility with Biomolecules: If you're working with proteins, peptides, or other large biomolecules, HPLC is the way to go. These molecules are often too large and non-volatile for GC analysis, but HPLC can separate and analyze them effectively. 
  • Gentler Operating Conditions: HPLC operates at much lower temperatures compared to GC, typically not exceeding 60°C. This is a significant advantage when dealing with heat-sensitive compounds that might degrade under the high temperatures used in GC. 
  • Wide Range of Detectors: HPLC can be coupled with a variety of detectors, each with its own strengths and applications. Some common types of detectors include UV-Visible Detectors, Mass Spectrometry, Fluorescence Detectors, Photodiode Array Detectors (PDA), Diode Array Detectors (DAD), Refractive Index Detectors (RID), and more. 
Difference Between GC and HPLC - Supporting Image 2


Ensuring Optimal Results in GC and HPLC

Proper sample preparation is key to achieving accurate and reliable results in both GC and HPLC. This involves selecting the appropriate sample preparation method, such as liquid-liquid extraction, solid-phase extraction, or derivatization, based on the nature of your sample and the goals of your analysis. 

Failing to prepare your sample properly can lead to matrix effects, co-eluting interferences, and reduced sensitivity.

Using high-quality, high-purity solvents is another important factor in ensuring optimal results. Low-quality solvents can contain impurities interfering with your analysis, leading to ghost peaks, baseline drift, and reduced sensitivity. 

They can also cause premature column degradation, shortening the lifespan of your analytical columns. Investing in high-purity solvents will help you minimize interference, maintain column integrity, and achieve more accurate and reproducible results.

Regular maintenance and calibration of your GC and HPLC instruments are also essential for consistent performance. This includes replacing consumables like septa, liners, and filters, as well as cleaning and conditioning your columns. Regularly checking and calibrating your detectors ensures that they are operating at optimal sensitivity and linearity. Neglecting instrument maintenance can lead to decreased performance, reduced sensitivity, and unreliable results.

It might also be a good idea to consult method comparison resources. They provide valuable information on the strengths and limitations of each technique for specific applications. These resources can help you optimize your analysis by selecting the most appropriate column, mobile phase, and detector for your target compounds. 

They also offer insights into sample preparation, method development, and troubleshooting, allowing you to fine-tune your methods and achieve the best possible results.

Is GC or HPLC the Right Choice for Your Lab?

Selecting the appropriate chromatography technique for your lab involves careful consideration of your analytical goals and sample characteristics. GC and HPLC each have their strengths and limitations, making them suitable for different applications.

To quickly summarize the entire article, choose GC if:

  • Your samples are volatile or can be made volatile through derivatization.
  • You need to analyze gases, perfumes, fuels, solvents, or other easily vaporized compounds.
  • High-temperature operation is suitable for your sample analysis.
  • You require high sensitivity to detect organic molecules.
  • You are working in environmental analysis, forensic science, food and flavor analysis, or petrochemical industries.
  • Common detectors like Flame Ionization Detector (FID), Thermal Conductivity Detector (TCD), or Mass Spectrometry (MS) meet your detection needs.
  • You prefer faster analysis for volatile compounds, although complex mixtures may take longer.

Alternatively, choose HPLC if:

  • Your samples are non-volatile and can be in liquid form.
  • You need to analyze large biomolecules, pharmaceuticals, proteins, peptides, nucleic acids, or food ingredients.
  • Room temperature or slightly elevated temperature operation is appropriate for your samples.
  • You need a versatile method that can be optimized for speed or resolution.
  • Your work involves pharmaceutical analysis, biochemical research, food and beverage testing, environmental monitoring, or forensic analysis.
  • Various detection methods like UV/Vis absorbance, Fluorescence, Refractive Index (RI), Photodiode Array Detector (PDA), Diode Array Detector (DAD), or Mass Spectrometry (MS) are required for your analysis.
  • Sample preparation involves simple filtration without the need for derivatization.

Choosing between GC and HPLC depends on your specific laboratory needs and the nature of the samples you are analyzing. Birch Biotech provides the highest quality LC-MS and HPLC Grade products to support your analytical methods, ensuring accurate and reliable results. Contact our team to learn more today.

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