TOC - Total organic carbon

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Total organic carbon (TOC) is the amount of carbon bound in an organic compound and is often used as a non-specific indicator of water quality or cleanliness of pharmaceutical manufacturing equipment.

A typical analysis for TOC measures both the total carbon present as well as the inorganic carbon (IC). Subtracting the inorganic carbon from the total carbon yields TOC. Another common variant of TOC analysis involves removing the IC portion first and then measuring the leftover carbon. This method involves purging an acidified sample with carbon-free air or nitrogen prior to measurement, and so is more accurately called non-purgeable organic carbon (NPOC)


>For more information on TOC see our Product Pages for Total Organic Carbon Analyzers


List of relevant terminologies:

Total Carbon (TC) – all the carbon in the sample, including both inorganic and organic carbon

Total Inorganic Carbon (TIC) – often referred to as inorganic carbon (IC), carbonate, bicarbonate, and dissolved carbon dioxide; a material derived from non-living sources.

Total Organic Carbon (TOC) – material derived from decaying vegetation, bacterial growth, and metabolic activities of living organisms or chemicals.

Non-Purgeable Organic Carbon (NPOC) – commonly referred to as TOC; organic carbon remaining in an acidified sample after purging the sample with gas.

Purgeable (volatile) Organic Carbon (POC) – organic carbon that has been removed from a neutral , or acidified sample by purging with an inert gas. These are the same compounds referred to as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) and usually determined by Purge and Trap Gas Chromatography.

Dissolved Organic Carbon (DOC) – organic carbon remaining in a sample after filtering the sample, typically using a 0.45 micrometer filter.

Suspended Organic Carbon – also called particulate organic carbon (PtOC); the carbon in particulate form that is too large to pass through a filter.


Since all TOC analyzers only actually measure total carbon, TOC analysis always requires some accounting for the inorganic carbon that is always present.

One analysis technique involves a two-stage process commonly referred to as TC-IC. It measures the amount of inorganic carbon (IC) evolved from an acidified aliquot of a sample and also the amount of total carbon (TC) present in the sample. TOC is calculated by subtraction of the IC value from the TC the sample.


Another variant employs acidification of the sample to evolve carbon dioxide and measuring it as inorganic carbon (IC), then oxidizing and measuring the remaining non-purgeable organic carbon (NPOC). This is called TIC-NPOC analysis. A more common method directly measures TOC in the sample by again acidifying the sample it to a pH value of two or less to release the IC gas but in this case to the air not for measurement. The remaining non-purgeable CO2 gas (NPOC)contained in the liquid aliquot is then oxidized releasing the gases. These gases are then sent to the detector for measurement.

Whether the analysis of TOC is by TC-IC or NPOC methods, it may be broken into three main stages:

  1. Acidification
  2. Oxidation
  3. Detection and Quantification

The first stage is acidification of the sample for the removal of the IC and POC gases. The release of these gases to the detector for measurement or to the air is dependent upon which type of analysis is of interest, the former for TC-IC and the latter for TOC (NPOC).



The removal and venting of IC and POC gases from the liquid sample by acidification and sparging occurs in the following manner.

Image:Acidification and Purging Equation.jpg


The second stage is the oxidation of the carbon in the remaining sample in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases. Modern TOC analyzers perform this oxidation step by one several processes:

  1. High Temperature Combustion
  2. High temperature catalytic (HTCO) oxidation
  3. Photo-oxidation alone
  4. Thermo-chemical oxidation
  5. Photo-chemical oxidation
  6. Electrolytic Oxidation
>Detection and Quantification

Accurate detection and quantification are the most vital components of the TOC analysis process. Conductivity and non-dispersive infrared (NDIR) are the two common detection methods used in modern TOC analyzers.


There are two types of conductivity detectors, direct and membrane. Direct conductivity provides an inexpensive and simple means of measuring CO2. This method has good oxidation of organics, uses no carrier gas, is good at the parts per billion (ppb) ranges, but has a very limited analytical range. Membrane conductivity relies upon the same technology as direct conductivity. Although it is more robust than direct conductivity, it suffers from slow analysis time. Both methods analyze sample conductivity before and after oxidization, attributing this differential measurement to the TOC of the sample. During the sample oxidization phase, CO2 (directly related to the TOC in the sample) and other gases are formed. The dissolved CO2 forms a weak acid, thereby changing the conductivity of the original sample proportionately to the TOC in the sample. Conductivity analyses assume that only CO2 is present within the solution. As long as this holds true, then the TOC calculation by this differential measurement is valid. However, depending on the chemical species present in the sample and their individual products of oxidation, they may present either a positive or a negative interference to the actual TOC value, resulting in analytical error. Some of the interfering chemical species include Cl-, HCO3-, SO32-, SO2-, ClO2-, and H+. Small changes in pH and temperature fluctuations also contribute to inaccuracy. Membrane conductivity analyzers have tried to improve upon the direct conductivity approach by incorporating the use of hydrophobic gas permeation membranes to allow a more “selective” passage of the dissolved CO2 gas. While this has solved certain problems, membranes have their own particular limitations, such as with true selectivity, clogging and, more undetectably, they provide secondary sites for other chemical reactions, which are prone to display “false negatives,” a condition far more severe than “false positives” in critical applications. Micro leaks, flow problems, dead spots, microbial growth (blockage) are also potential problems. Most disconcerting is the inability of membrane methods to recover to operational performance after an overload or “spill” condition arises to over range the instrument, often taking hours before returning to reliable service and recalibration, just when accuracy of TOC analysis is most critical to operators for quality control.

Non-dispersive infrared (NDIR)

The non-dispersive infrared analysis (NDIR) method offers the only practical interference-free method for detecting CO2 in TOC analysis. The principal advantage of using NDIR is that it directly and specifically measures the CO2 generated by oxidation of the organic carbon in the oxidation reactor, rather than relying on a measurement of a secondary, corrected effect, such as used in conductivity measurements.

A traditional NDIR detector relies upon flow-through-cell technology, the oxidation product flows into and out of the detector continuously. A region of adsorption of infrared light specific to CO2, usually around 4.26 µm (2350 cm-1), is measured over time as the gas flows through the detector. The infrared adsorption spectra of CO2 and other gases is shown in Figure 3. A second reference measurement that is non-specific to CO2 is also taken and the differential result correlates to the CO2 concentration in the detector at that moment. As the gas continues to flow into an out of the detector cell the sum of the measurements results in a peak that is integrated and correlated to the total CO2 concentration in the sample aliquot.

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