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Thin-Layer Chromatography

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  1. Effects of Mobile Phase Composition on Compound Separation

    In this section of the lab, you will use TLC to compare how well pure hexane and a mixture of 60% hexane and 40% ethyl acetate can separate phenol, benzoic acid, and butyl phenyl ether by measuring the distance the compound traveled in each solvent.

    • Before starting the lab, put on a lab coat, safety glasses, and nitrile gloves. Note: Hexane and ethyl acetate are both volatile, toxic, and flammable, so always work with them in a fume hood. Change your gloves if you get solvent on them, as hexane and ethyl acetate will permeate nitrile gloves within minutes.
    • Now, obtain a paper towel and lay it on the benchtop. Carefully pick up a TLC plate using tweezers at the very end of the plate. Note: Always hold TLC plates by the edges or at the very top with tweezers to avoid damaging or contaminating the silica gel.
    • Look for chips or scratches in the silica gel and get a new plate if necessary. It's fine if there is a little chipping at only one end, since that can be the top.
    • Place the plate on the paper towel in your fume hood, and lay a metric ruler next to it. Use a graphite pencil to gently make a small mark on the silica gel ~1 cm from the top of the plate. Write ‘100’ on the plate above the mark.
    • Next, gently mark the plate 1 cm above the bottom on both sides. Carefully trace a straight line between the bottom marks to make the starting line.
    • Then, add 3 evenly spaced small marks to the starting line with the outer marks at least 0.5 cm from the sides of the plate. Note: It's important for the silica gel to be undamaged here, so if you scratch it with the pencil, prepare a new plate.
    • Now, trace the outline of the TLC plate in your lab notebook and precisely copy the marks on the plate. Label the three marks as ‘phenol’, ‘benzoic acid’, and ‘butyl phenyl ether’. You may also want to label the marks on the plate itself.
    • Prepare a second TLC plate labeled ‘60/40’ in the same way. Now, bring the labeled plates to the common bench and locate the 1 mg/mL solutions of phenol, benzoic acid, and butyl phenyl ether in ethanol.
    • Dip a clean capillary into one of the three solutions. Briefly and lightly dab the capillary squarely against the intersection between the starting line and the mark for that compound. You should spot twice for each compound.
    • Use the same capillary to spot the same solution on your second TLC plate. The spots should be no more than 2 mm in diameter. Then, discard the capillary and close the vial.
    • Spot the other two solutions on the plates, in the same way, using clean capillaries. Be careful not to cross-contaminate the solutions. Note: If a spot is very light or very small, wait for it to dry, and then spot the same solution on top of the dry spot. If the spot is still wet, capillary action could make it too wide and dilute.
    • Once you have made three spots on each plate, discard the capillaries and bring the plates back to your hood. Keep the plates lying flat while they dry.
    • Now, label a 50-mL jar ‘100% hexane’ and bring the jar, its cap, and a 10-mL graduated cylinder to the solvent hood.
    • Measure 2 – 3 mL of pure hexane with your graduated cylinder and pour it into the jar to fill it to a depth of 0.62 – 0.7 cm. Cap the bottle and jar and return to your fume hood.
    • Label a second 50-mL jar ‘60% hexane, 40% ethyl acetate’ and bring it and a clean graduated cylinder to the solvent hood. Measure 2 – 3 mL of the 60/40 mixture into the jar and return to your fume hood.
    • Stand the plates next to the jars to compare the relative position of the solvent and the spots. The solvent level should be below the spots for each plate.
    • Then, obtain three pieces of filter paper, put a filter paper upright against the wall in each jar, and then cap the jars tightly.
    • Initial each plate above the mark so you can identify them later. Confirm that the filter papers in the jars have become saturated with solvent and that the spots on the plates are completely dry.
    • Now, open the 100% hexane jar and use tweezers to gently place the 100 plate in the jar, keeping the plate level with the solvent surface as it enters the solvent. Close the jar tightly, being careful not to jostle the plate.
    • Leave the jar still as the solvent travels up the plate. Development in pure hexane usually takes about 7 – 10 min. Keep an eye on the plate to make sure that the solvent doesn't reach the top.
    • When the pure hexane solvent front is about 1 cm from the top of the plate, retrieve it using tweezers. Lay it on the paper towel with the silica gel facing up and quickly mark the solvent front with a line and pencil across the plate. Leave the plate lying flat as the solvent evaporates.
    • Place the other plate in the 60/40 eluent in the same way. Wait until the solvent front of the 60/40 plate is about 1 cm from the top, and then retrieve it and quickly mark the solvent front in the same way.
    • Once the 100% hexane plate is completely dry, pick it up with tweezers and bring it and a pencil to the UV lamp on the common bench.
    • Place the plate under the lamp and illuminate it with UV light. The plate will glow green because of a fluorescent marker in the silica gel layer. The dark spots are the compounds.
    • Carefully outline every spot in pencil, even if they haven't moved very far.
    • Then, turn off the lamp and bring your plate to the iodine development hood. Open the iodine chamber. Use tweezers to gently place the plate upright in the iodine chamber, and then cover the chamber again.
    • Wait 3 – 4 min for the iodine vapor to stay in the spots. Then, retrieve the plate with tweezers, close the chamber, and outline the brown and yellow spots on the plate. These spots will fade, so mark them quickly.
    • Visualize the dry 60/40 plate under UV light and then with iodine vapor in the same way. Note: To avoid side reactions, always check plates under UV light before exposing them to iodine.
    • Now, precisely copy the spots and the solvent fronts onto the corresponding drawings of the plates in your lab notebook. For each plate, measure and record the height of the solvent front relative to the starting line.
    • Lastly, measure the distance between the center of each spot and its starting line, and record it in your lab notebook. You can now move on to the next part of the lab.
  2. Unknown Compound Identification

    In the second half of the lab, you'll use TLC to find out what's in an unknown analgesic. It could contain one or more of these compounds: aspirin, caffeine, and acetaminophen. These compounds are highly polar, so you'll use a premade mixture of 90% ethyl acetate and 10% hexane as the eluent.

    You'll run the three reference compounds and the unknown all on the same plate. Later, you'll use the Rf values of the reference compounds to identify the unknown. First, double-check which unknown material you were assigned to analyze before starting.

    • Now, lay a clean paper towel in the hood and obtain a new TLC plate. Prepare the top mark and the starting line the same way as before. Make four evenly spaced ticks on the plate, making sure that the outer marks are at least 0.5 cm away from the edges.
    • Draw an exact copy of the plate in your lab notebook and label the tick marks as ‘aspirin’, ‘acetaminophen’, ‘caffeine’, and ‘unknown’.
    • Now, bring your plate to the common bench. Spot solutions of aspirin, acetaminophen, caffeine, and the unknown that you were assigned on the appropriate marks using a clean capillary for each solution. Note: When you are spotting the unknown solution, don't dip the capillary too far into the solution vial to avoid clogging your capillary with insoluble material from the unknown substance.
    • Discard the capillaries and close the vials before bringing the plate back to your fume hood. Place the plate on a paper towel to finish drying.
    • Next, label a clean 50-mL screw-top jar ‘90% ethyl acetate, 10% hexane’, and bring it in a clean graduated cylinder to the solvent hood.
    • Place 2 – 3 mL of the 90/10 solution in the jar and return to your fume hood. Confirm that the solvent level will be below the spots on the plate. Then, place a clean filter paper upright in the jar and close it tightly.
    • Once the TLC plate is dry and the filter paper is saturated, carefully place the plate in the solvent. Note: It's essential to hold the plate level when you do this. If the solvent front is diagonal, the solvent distance traveled will be different for each spot, making it impossible to visually compare the unknown to the reference spots.
    • Wait for the solvent front to reach 1 cm from the top of the plate. Then, retrieve the plate, mark it solvent front, and let it dry while lying flat.
    • Once the plate is dry, visualize it with UV light and in the iodine chamber, and outline the spots in pencil.
    • The unknown material could be a mixture of compounds, so look carefully for spots in line with all three reference spots.
    • Then, precisely copy the spots onto the drawing of the plate in your lab notebook. Measure and record the height of the solvent front and the spots relative to the starting line.
    • When you are finished, retrieve the solvent-saturated filter papers from the jars and let them dry in the hood.
    • Pour leftover solvents into the standard organic waste, wash your glassware following your lab's usual methods, and put away your lab equipment.
    • Throw out used TLC plates in the lab trash or with glass waste, depending on the backing material.
    • Lastly, once the filters are dry, throw them out along with any remaining trash.
  3. Results
    • Calculate the Rf values for phenol, benzoic acid, and butyl phenyl ether eluted with 100% hexane. For each compound on the TLC plate, measure the distance from the starting line to the center of its spot. Then, divide this value by the distance from the starting line to the solvent front.
    • Only butyl phenyl ether moved a measurable distance from the starting line, which is consistent with it being the least polar. For effective separation, the Rf values should differ by 0.3 – 0.7. Thus, we can infer that phenol and benzoic acid are too polar to be separated effectively by an apolar solvent like pure hexane.
    • Calculate the Rf values for the plate that you ran in a 60/40 mixture of hexane and ethyl acetate. Ethyl acetate is a moderately polar solvent, so the compounds traveled farther and are spaced farther apart on the plate.
    • The separation order shows that benzoic acid, the most polar compound, had the highest affinity for silica gel, whereas butyl phenyl ether, the least polar compound, had the lowest affinity for silica gel. This is consistent with the assumption that less polar compounds travel farther on polar stationary phases.
    • Look at your third plate and calculate the Rf values for aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine. Caffeine, the most polar complex of the three, traveled the least. Acetaminophen traveled the second farthest, while aspirin, the least polar, traveled the most.
    • Finally, identify the compounds in your unknown material by comparing its spot or spots to the three reference spots.

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