Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Optimized Thermal Desorption for Improved Sensitivity in Trace Explosives Detection by Ion Mobility Spectrometry



Marcela N. Najarro, Matthew E. Staymates, Robert A. Fletcher, John G. Gillen


In this work we evaluate the influence of thermal desorber temperature on the analytical response of a swipe-based thermal desorption ion mobility spectrometer (IMS) for detection of trace explosives. IMS response for several common high explosives ranging from 0.1 ng to 100 ng was measured over a thermal desorber temperature range from 60 °C to 280 °C. Most of the explosives examined demonstrated a well-defined maximum IMS signal response at a temperature slightly below the melting point. Optimal temperatures, giving the highest IMS peak intensity, were 80 °C for trinitrotoluene (TNT), 100 °C for pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN), 160 °C for cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine (RDX) and 200 °C for cyclotetramethylenetetranitramine (HMX). By modifying the desorber temperature, we were able to increase cummulative IMS signal by a factor of 5 for TNT and HMX, and by a factor of 10 for RDX and PETN. Similar signal enhancements were observed for the same compounds formulated as plastic-bonded explosives (Composition 4 (C-4), Detasheet, and Semtex). In addition, mixtures of the explosives exhibited similar enhancements in analyte peak intensities. The increases in sensitivity were obtained at the expense of increased analysis times of up to 20 seconds. A slow sample heating rate as well as slower vapor-phase analyte introduction rate caused by low temperature desorption enhanced the analytical sensitivity of individual explosives, plastic-bonded explosives and explosives mixtures by IMS. Several possible mechanisms that can affect IMS signal response were investigated such as thermal degradation of the analytes, ionization efficiency, competitive ionization from background, and aerosol emission.


IMS, explosives, thermal desorption, explosives trace detectors


Najarro, M. , Staymates, M. , Fletcher, R. and Gillen, J. (2012), Optimized Thermal Desorption for Improved Sensitivity in Trace Explosives Detection by Ion Mobility Spectrometry, Analyst, [online], (Accessed March 5, 2024)
Created April 27, 2012, Updated February 19, 2017