Chromatography, technique for separating the components, or solutes, of a mixture on the basis of the relative amounts of each solute distributed between a moving fluid stream, called the mobile phase, and a contiguous stationary phase. The mobile phase may be either a liquid or a gas, while the stationary phase is either a solid or a liquid.
Kinetic molecular motion continuously exchanges solute molecules between the two phases. If, for a particular solute, the distribution favours the moving fluid, the molecules will spend most of their time migrating with the stream and will be transported away from other species whose molecules are retained longer by the stationary phase. For a given species, the ratio of the times spent in the moving and stationary regions is equal to the ratio of its concentrations in these regions, known as the partition coefficient. (The term adsorption isotherm is often used when a solid phase is involved.) A mixture of solutes is introduced into the system in a confined region or narrow zone (the origin), whereupon the different species are transported at different rates in the direction of fluid flow. The driving force for solute migration is the moving fluid, and the resistive force is the solute affinity for the stationary phase; the combination of these forces, as manipulated by the analyst, produces the separation.
Chromatography is one of several separation techniques defined as differential migration from a narrow initial zone. Electrophoresis is another member of this group. In this case, the driving force is an electric field, which exerts different forces on solutes of different ionic charge. The resistive force is the viscosity of the nonflowing solvent. The combination of these forces yields ion mobilities peculiar to each solute.
Chromatography has numerous applications in biological and chemical fields. It is widely used in biochemical research for the separation and identification of chemical compounds of biological origin. In the petroleum industry the technique is employed to analyze complex mixtures of hydrocarbons.