Atomic spectroscopy is the determination of elemental composition by its electromagnetic or mass spectrum. The study of the electromagnetic spectrum of elements is called Optical Atomic Spectroscopy. Electrons exist in energy levels within an atom. These levels have well defined energies and electrons moving between them need to absorb or emit energy equal to the difference between them. In optical spectroscopy, the energy consumed to move an electron into a more energetic level and/or the energy emitted as the electron moves to a less active energy level is in the form of a photon. The wavelength of the emitted radiant energy is directly linked to the electronic transition which has occurred. Since every element has a unique electronic structure, the wavelength of light emitted is a special property of every individual element.
Since the orbital configuration of a large atom may be complex, there are lots of electronic transitions which can occur, each transition resulting in the emission of a characteristic wavelength of light, as illustrated below atomic absorption spectroscopy. The science of nuclear spectroscopy has yielded three techniques for analytical use: Atomic Absorption. Atomic Emission. Atomic Fluorescence. The process of excitation and decay to the ground state is involved in all three fields of nuclear spectroscopy. Either the energy absorbed in the excitation process, or the energy emitted in the decay process is measured and used for analytical purposes. If light of just the right Wavelength impinges on a free, ground state atom, the atom may absorb the light as it enters an excited state in a process called atomic absorption. This procedure is shown on the right. Atomic absorption measures the amount of light in the resonant wavelength which is absorbed as it passes through a cloud of atoms.
As the number of atoms in the light path increases, the amount of light absorbed increases in a predictable manner. By quantifying the amount of light absorbed, a quantitative determination of the quantity of analyte element present can be made. Using special light sources and careful choice of wavelength allow the specific quantitative determination of human elements in the presence of others. The atom cloud required for atomic absorption measurements is produced by supplying enough thermal energy to the sample to dissociate the chemical compounds into free atoms. Aspirating a solution of the sample into a flame aligned in the light beam serves this purpose. Under the proper flame conditions, the majority of the atoms will remain in the ground state form and are capable of absorbing light at the analytical wavelength from a source lamp. The ease and speed at which precise and accurate determinations can be made with this technique have made atomic absorption one of the most popular methods for the determination of metals.