National Physical Laboratory

Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry (SIMS)

Secondary ion mass spectrometry

SIMS is a highly sensitive technique for investigating the surface chemistry of samples. It provides:

  • Identification of trace elements, organic molecules and polymers on surfaces, with better than 1 ppm sensitivity for some molecules and ppb sensitivity for some elements
  • Surface chemical imaging with 100 nm - 5 µm spatial resolution
  • Extremely surface sensitive information from top 1 nm of sample in static SIMS mode
  • 3D elemental / molecular distribution with better than 50 nm depth resolution in depth profiling mode

In SIMS, a focused primary ion beam desorbs characteristic molecular, atomic and fragment secondary ions which are subsequently extracted into a mass analyser. Removal of material with a secondary ion beam, commonly a large gas cluster, facilitates depth profiling and 3D imaging.

NPL has extensive experience in the development and application of ToF-SIMS for analysis of diverse organic and biological materials. Ongoing research has developed fundamental understanding of depth profiling of organic materials, and of matrix effects; which supress analyte ionisation and hinder quantification.

3D ToF-SIMS images localising drug uptake in a single cell (Passarelli et al. Anal. Chem. 2015) © 2015 American Chemical Society
3D ToF-SIMS images localising drug uptake in a single cell
(Passarelli et al, Anal. Chem., 2015) © 2015 American Chemical Society

SIMS is well suited for imaging of cells, tissues, biomaterials and medical devices, particularly at high lateral resolutions. The organic depth profiling capability of gas cluster ion beams, enables efficient depth profiling and 3D imaging of thin layered structures such as those commonly found medical devices and advanced manufactured products. Applications include the characterisation of interfacial chemistry in organic LED displays, imaging of conditioning products in hair, and sub-cellular localisation of drugs.


In partnership with ION-TOF and GSK, NPL has developed a revolutionary new hybrid SIMS instrument. The 3D OrbiSIMS combines the strengths of a ToF mass analyser for high-speed analysis and the Orbitrap (Fourier Transform mass spectrometer), with DC measurement (higher-sensitivity) and ultra-high mass resolution, into a hybrid analyser that overcomes their individual weaknesses to deliver beyond-state-of-the-art tissue imaging capabilities. The 3D OrbiSIMS will be launched at the NiCE-MSI Science and Technology day on 29 November 2016.

3D OrbiSIMS instrument
3D OrbiSIMS instrument



ION-TOF TOF.SIMS 5 instrument
ION-TOF TOF.SIMS 5 instrument


  • Bismuth LMIG
  • Gas cluster source for organic depth profiling and 3D imaging
  • C60
  • 5-axis stage
  • Heating and cooling sample holder for frozen hydrated analysis

Selected publications

Measurement services

NPL supports the application of SIMS in a range of R&D and industrial sectors. We work closely with the pharmaceutical, medical device, advanced manufacturing and graphene sectors to provide imaging and analysis solutions. If you are interested in accessing the techniques and expertise available at NiCE-MSI and NPL, there are many ways of working with us.


Rasmus Havelund

Last Updated: 31 Oct 2017
Created: 15 Nov 2016


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