Electrochemical detection of trace metals: from traditional techniques to new ultrathin membrane electrodes

Abstract: Accurate detection of trace metals in environmental waters is an analytical challenge that is still open for the time being. The current state of the field reveals the predominance of the so-called hanging mercury drop electrode (HMDE) for multi-metal detection by means of anodic stripping voltammetry (ASV) readout. Being aware of the high toxicity of mercury and the high risk of a serious environmental footprint when water measurements are performed with the HMDE, in the past years, the electrochemistry field has rapidly moved towards the provision of tangible alternatives. Yet, none of the proposed methodologies has reached appropriate maturation and/or analytical features to substitute the use of the HMDE in the detection of trace metal ions in water.The investigations presented in this thesis are framed within the direction of new analytical strategies for the detection of trace metals in water, with special focus on the silver ion (Ag+). Voltammetric ion-selective electrodes (ISEs) with a working mechanism conceived on the basis of interconnected charge-transfer (CT) and ion-transfer (IT) processes are selected for such purpose due to their unique characteristics towards decentralized measurements.The first chapter of the thesis aims to provide a general background about electrochemistry measurements of ions, providing special attention to all-solid-state voltammetric ISEs based on ultrathin membranes that provide the CT–IT mechanism. Fundaments about ASV and the use of the HMDE for trace metal detection are also revised. Of particular interest is the case of Ag+ determination, which is not fully addressed with the HMDE. Accordingly, the state-of-the-art of electrochemical analysis of trace Ag+ has been established (Paper I).The second chapter shows the experimental details and the third chapter presents and discusses all the results obtained in this thesis.The first section is about a new analytical strategy for nanomolar detection of Ag+ in waters by coupling a silver-selective electrode (AgSE) based on a CT–IT mechanism with IT stripping voltammetry readout (Paper II). Specifically, the IT occurs via providing the CT process in electrodes that are modified with a redox-active conductive polymer and an ultrathin silver-selective membrane placed on top. Thus, the CT–IT tandem in voltammetric ISEs is unprecedently demonstrated for the detection of Ag+ in different water samples.The second section is based on the improvement of the limit of detection of the developed AgSE to detect sub-nanomolar concentration of Ag+ even in the presence of high interference levels, e.g., sodium ion (Paper III). Through the reduction of the total ion-exchange capacity of the ultrathin membrane, it is possible to increase the effectiveness towards the intake of Ag+ versus sodium ions (Na+) when IT stripping voltammetry is applied. The resulting ISE displayed a limit of detection of 0.05 nM, with a linear range of response up to 10 nM and is successfully applied for the analysis of Ag+ in several water samples, including seawater.The third section presents the investigation of the HMDE for multi-metal detection at trace levels in soil waters while establishing the fundaments, features and controversies of the technique (Paper IV). The entire replacement of the HMDE will only occur when multi-metal trace detection is provided by a sole electrode or an electrode array able to provide similar analytical characteristics, which are collected in this thesis, while avoiding the use of mercury or any other pollutant in the electrode manufacturing.The fourth section inquiries the possibility of using voltammetric ISE based on interconnected CT–IT processes for other trace metals, in particular lead and copper ions (Pb2+ and Cu2+) (Paper V). Despite more work being necessary in that direction, preliminary insights have revealed the potential of the CT–IT technique developed in this thesis towards multi-metal detection either with the incorporation in the membrane of multiple ionophores with different selectivity profiles for each metal or with a multi-sensor array. Accordingly, the research work presented in this thesis has a strong potential towards future investigations in this direction.