HPLC-ECD (Electrochemical Detection) Fundamentals

Electrochemical (EC) detection (ECD) coupled with HPLC is a powerful tool for the detection of neurotransmitters, environmental assessment, and for the detection of phenole compounds from food samples. Various neurotransmitters are detectable such as norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, glutamate, GABA, acetylcholine, as well as others. The sample matrix is wide spread, including but not limited to: microdialysis samples, tissue, cell lysate, cell culture medium, blood plasma, and more.


  • Analytes are separated on a specific analytical column.
  • The resultant current is directly proportional to the concentration of the analyte.
  • Two main types of EC detection (ECD), amperometric and coulometric.

Advantages of Electrochemical Detection (EC, ECD)

  • Allows for specific compound detection by choosing the appropriate analytical conditions for each analyte.
  • Highly sensitive with the capability of detecting in attomole (=fg) range.

Amperometric Detection

  • Highly sensitive
  • Easy maintenance
  • Eicom mainly sells Amperometric cell detectors due to their lower limit of detection

Coulometric Detection

  • Recommended for preparatory electrolysis
  • Allows for 100% electrolysis
  • Available only for 3-Nitrotyrosine analysis


Target compounds (analytes) are separated using a separation column and mobile phase on an HPLC. After separation, the compounds present within the mobile phase enter the electrochemical detector (ECD), and are either oxidized or reduced. Upon oxidation, free electrons are being released to the counter electrode. In the case of compound reduction, electrons are provided from the counter electrode to the analyte. The ECD detects this electrical current which linearly correlates to the analyte concentration loaded into the HPLC. Read on to learn how to use this principle for practical applications.

Advantage of Electrochemical Detection

Electrochemical detection (ECD) is very sensitive and capable of detecting in the femtomole/L (10-15 M) range depending on the analyte and sample matrix. By choosing the appropriate applied voltage for the oxidation/reduction potential and material of the working electrode, a more chemical specific detecting condition can be obtained. For example, thiols are most specifically detected by a gold working electrode, where hydrogen peroxide is relatively specific to the platinum electrode. A highly sensitive concomitant detector with good specificity is the tandem mass spectrometer (LC/MS/MS) but the cost is prohibitive. HPLC-ECD has the perfect balance of price and performance for routine measurements of biological or environmental samples such as catecholamines, acetylcholine, glutamate, glycine, GABA, and others.

Amperometric and Coulometric Detection

There are two types of electrochemical detectors that utilize electrolysis, amperometry and coulometry. Eicom carries both types of electrolysis cells. Coulometry utilizes a procedure that electrolyzes compounds 100% using a porous electrode structure and larger surface area when an adequate voltage is applied. Amperometry uses a smooth electrode surface and only partially electrolyzes the compounds. This method has less noise and is more sensitive when compared to coulometry. Please read on to learn how recent technology applies these two different methodologies to maximize results.

More About Sensitivity

Sensitivity is defined by the signal to noise ratio, not solely by signal intensity. Electronics enable signal amplification but this usually accompanies noise interference as well. Removing the noise at the detector level is required for reliable analysis. The amperometric cell has a lower noise level and results in higher sensitivity. The amperometric detector cell has a solid non-porous working electrode with a smooth surface which lowers the noise level. Eicom employs the low noise amperometric cell for their detectors. This enables a dramatically lower limit of detection compared to the coulometic cells. When Eicom began the production of the ECD in 1986 we exclusively produced only the most innovative amperometric detector cells to realize excellent sensitivity. In recent years we also began offering coulometric detectors as an option for our customers.

Applied Potential

To change the redox status of an analyte, the appropriate potential must be applied. The ECD applies this potential as a voltage and controls it with a third electrode called a reference electrode. The applied potential needs to be set higher than the redox potential of the compound but also needs to be kept to a minimum. If the potential is set higher than required, other compounds hidden or having higher potentials can be detected and this results in a loss of selectivity. Even if the potential is low enough for the target compound and the peak includes other compounds which also have a lower redox potential, the other compounds can also be detected and not distinguished from the target compound on the detector. How we resolve this issue? See below.

Specificity is made by Separation and Detection

As explained in the Applied Potential section, losing specificity at the ECD can be a problem. This can be prevented by choosing the appropriate separating conditions before the detector and consequently removing any peak that may be included at the lower potential. Thus, choosing the appropriate separating conditions specific to the sample is as important as choosing the appropriate applied potential. This is the only way to prevent a loss in selectivity. Theoretically, filtrating out the lower potential compounds by applying a lower potential prior to the final detector would alleviate this selectivity problem. However, this procedure is not practical when robust sensitivity is required. The electric current upstream from the lower potential compounds flows to the other detector(s) located down stream. This is a complicated system and can also become an obstacle in attaining high sensitivity. In the next section, the latest and most practical technology of ECD using two cells is described.

A Combination of Amperometry and Coulometry

Coulometric cells have the ability to completely electrolyze compounds if the applied voltage is high enough. Another advantage of coulometry is less distribution of flow in the cell. This results in most of the analytes in the coulometric cell reaching the amperometric detector linearly. Thus, the combination of the coulometric cell (characterized as less distribution of flow and 100% electrolysis cell), and the amperometric cell (higher sensitivity) work excellently to detect certain compounds which are more difficult to oxidize than to reduce.

In preparatory electrolyzing, the analytes are electrochemically modified and easily detected at the second cell. For example, 3-nitrotyrosine (3-NT) is reduced easily but has a high oxidative potential. After the separation column the coulometric cell works to apply a reduced potential and convert the 3-NT to its reduced form. At the amperometric detector located after the coulometric cell, the reduced form of 3-NT can be oxidized with high sensitivity using a lower potential than the oxidative potential of the 3-NT.

HPLC-ECD Method Optimization

Did you think the detection method for 3-nitrotyrosine sounded a little bit complicated? This is normal. As common as HPLC- ECD is, there are still many important variables involved in achieving the optimal analytical conditions. This specific information requires years of training and experience, which Eicom can efficiently provide you in a short period of time. Some factors influencing detection are as follows, but not limited to, column types, mobile phase pH, type of buffer solution, ion paring level, methanol concentration, temperature and detector setting. Finding the best conditions for both the HPLC and ECD may be more difficult and time consuming than you expect. However, if you employ Eicom’s HPLC-ECD methods, the time optimizing analytical methods with be greatly reduced.