Investigators can track origins, authenticity, and trace identity using the isotopic fingerprints (isotopic signatures) that are left behind in food, fiber, liquid, or stone. Isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS) can help identify the isotopic signatures that provide information about a geographic region, botanical processes, soil, or fertilization processes. Capture the stories hidden in your samples with the Thermo Scientific portfolio of isotope ratio mass spectrometers. 

Isotopic fingerprints help uncover the history of your samples

Samples have unique chemical signatures, or fingerprints, that provide clues to their histories. Isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS) can help visualize these fingerprints.

Food integrity

Food and beverage products have a fingerprint, a unique chemical signature that allows the product to be identified. To visualize this fingerprint, IRMS can be used, identifying the isotope fingerprint of the product. The isotope fingerprint in food and beverage products is region or process specific, which means that products can be differentiated based on geographical region (cheese, coffee, sugar, fish and animal feeding areas), botanical processes (beans, seeds, olive oil, vanilla), soil and fertilization processes (fruits and vegetables) and fraudulent practices (sugar addition to honey, watering of wines and spirits). These processes can be traced using carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, oxygen and hydrogen isotopes, with their variations indicating the origin and history of food and beverage products.

Environmental analysis

Protecting our environment from contamination is a global challenge, one that requires international focus and collaboration for our air, water and land resources. The natural and synthetic materials in our air, water and on our land have a fingerprint, a unique chemical signature that allows them to be identified and differentiated from one another. A unique chemical signature that allows this differentiation are the stable isotopes within the polluting material and we refer to this as the Isotope Fingerprint. To visualize this fingerprint, IRMS is used. The isotope fingerprint in natural sample materials is region or process specific, which means that samples can be differentiated based on geographical region (particulate matter in air), botanical origin (organic matter origin and movement) and mineralization processes (breakdown of material in nature). These processes can be routinely traced using isotope fingerprints, providing scope for source identification and tracking changes in our environment on timescales from the present day and into the recent and deep past.

Tracing origin of pollution with the Isotope Hunter

Tracing pollution sources in air with isotope fingerprints


Forensic investigations examine sample materials to determine how similar or different they are, or to identify the origin of the material. Identifying the difference in a material or where it comes from can be achieved because materials have a unique chemical signature, like a fingerprint. To visualize this fingerprint, IRMS is used, measuring the stable isotopes of sample material that are essentially chemically identical. Unlike other types of inferential evidence in forensic investigations (e.g., bite marks, impression marks from tires or footwear, handwriting), isotope measurements are quantitative empirical evidence that are reproducible and easy to validate. The application of isotope fingerprints to forensic investigations has become more commonplace because there is a need for a rigorous scientific foundation underpinned by sound analytical techniques. Application areas include forensic investigations on human, criminal, environmental, ecological, food and archaeological materials.

Doping control with the Isotope Hunter

Investigating criminal forensic cases with the Isotope Hunter

Tracing human provenance using isotope fingerprints

Oil and gas

As oil exploration is expensive, petroleum companies use multiple criteria for source identification, such as chemical and isotope fingerprinting, to meet decision on exploitation activities. Identification of sources can be achieved because petrochemical materials, just like other natural and synthetic materials, carry a unique chemical signature and we refer to this as the isotope fingerprint.

To visualize this fingerprint, IRMS is used. Application of isotope fingerprints in exploration and exploitation industry allows for differentiation of gas sources, migration, reservoir characterization, but also assessment of maturation and biodegradation processes. Isotope fingerprints of carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, oxygen and hydrogen are also used to address the influence of petrochemical exploration on environment. 



Plasma ionization reduces the number of interferences and the high mass resolution can easily differentiate 32S+ from the 18O16O+. This allows robust analysis of sulfur isotopes in individual organic compounds.

Learn about Neoma MC-ICP-MS ›


Nuclear applications, like nuclear safeguards, environmental control and nuclear fuel processing to generate nuclear energy, undergo very stringent regulations, requiring precise and accurate isotope analysis of uranium and other actinide elements. Nuclear safeguards and environmental control require ultimate detection systems to be able to find uranium and actinide isotopic signatures in very small samples like tissues. For nuclear power plants, it is crucial to use the correct amount and mixture of nuclear fuels for the nuclear fission process and as such requires precise and accurate 235U and 239Pu isotope information of the feed and product material.

Thermo Scientific isotope ratio mass spectrometers are ideally equipped for nuclear applications. The RPQ energy filter reduces the tailing of major isotopes onto neighboring minor isotopes, allowing extreme isotope ratios to be accurately determined. A tailored nuclear Multi Ion Counting package allows low abundance 234U and 236U to be determined at a fg level. 

Semiconductor and high purity metals

Contamination control is critical in the semiconductor and high purity metal industries. In particular, inorganic impurities affect the electrical properties of the insulating and conducting layers from which semiconductor devices are made. Similarly, high purity metals such as copper, are important precursor materials for the synthesis of advanced materials, including compound semiconductors used in solar cells and superconducting ceramics. Trace element contamination can therefore reduce the manufacturing yield and operational reliability of semiconductor devices. To minimize contamination, process chemicals and the metal end product must be monitored for ultratrace (ng/L; ppt) levels of elemental impurities.

Trace elemental analysis can be achieved using a number of instruments in the Thermo Scientific isotope ratio mass spectrometer portfolio. These high sensitivity instruments are designed to have low detection limits ideal to monitoring ultratrace levels of elemental impurities whilst still maintaining a high sample through-put. 


Isotope ratio mass spectrometers can also be used for battery research. One main problem of the lithium ion battery is the aging over time, and its loss of performance. Most of the aging parts in the electrolyte are organic based compounds. Coupling High Resolution ICP-MS to chromatography systems allows researchers to quantify unknown reaction products occurring as a result of aging within the electrolyte. Depth profiling techniques using Glow Discharge MS can be used to determine lithium migration into different cell components as the battery ages.

Isotope hunter e-learning

Become an Isotope Hunter with this e-learning series

This e-learning module will introduce you to isotope fingerprints and how they are used to find answers to sample origin and authenticity. You will learn:

  • What are isotope fingerprints?
  • How can we detect an isotope fingerprint?
  • Where can isotope fingerprints be applied?
  • What are examples of applications of isotope fingerprints for food integrity, environmental forensics, criminal forensics, doping control, etc.

Start your journey to become an Isotope Hunter today ›

Isotope Fingerprints Compendium

Isotope fingerprints compendia

Are you performing origin analysis? In the compendia you will get an introduction to how isotope fingerprints are used for origin and authenticity for food integrity applications and forensic investigations.

Download now ›

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