Some compounds in a mixture travel almost as far as the solvent does; some stay much closer to the base line. The distance travelled relative to the solvent is a constant for a particular compound as long as you keep everything else constant - the type of paper and the exact composition of the solvent, for example.
The distance travelled relative to the solvent is called the Rf value. For each compound it can be worked out using the formula:
For example, if one component of a mixture travelled 9.6 cm from the base line while the solvent had travelled 12.0 cm, then the Rf value for that component is:
In the example we looked at with the various pens, it wasn't necessary to measure Rf values because you are making a direct comparison just by looking at the chromatogram.
You are making the assumption that if you have two spots in the final chromatogram which are the same colour and have travelled the same distance up the paper, they are most likely the same compound. It isn't necessarily true of course - you could have two similarly coloured compounds with very similar Rf values. We'll look at how you can get around that problem further down the page.
What if the substances you are interested in are colourless?
In some cases, it may be possible to make the spots visible by reacting them with something which produces a coloured product. A good example of this is in chromatograms produced from amino acid mixtures.
Suppose you had a mixture of amino acids and wanted to find out which particular amino acids the mixture contained. For simplicity we'll assume that you know the mixture can only possibly contain five of the common amino acids.
A small drop of a solution of the mixture is placed on the base line of the paper, and similar small spots of the known amino acids are placed alongside it. The paper is then stood in a suitable solvent and left to develop as before. In the diagram, the mixture is M, and the known amino acids are labelled 1 to 5.
The position of the solvent front is marked in pencil and the chromatogram is allowed to dry and is then sprayed with a solution of ninhydrin. Ninhydrin reacts with amino acids to give coloured compounds, mainly brown or purple.
The left-hand diagram shows the paper after the solvent front has almost reached the top. The spots are still invisible. The second diagram shows what it might look like after spraying with ninhydrin.
There is no need to measure the Rf values because you can easily compare the spots in the mixture with those of the known amino acids - both from their positions and their colours.
In this example, the mixture contains the amino acids labelled as 1, 4 and 5.
And what if the mixture contained amino acids other than the ones we have used for comparison? There would be spots in the mixture which didn't match those from the known amino acids. You would have to re-run the experiment using other amino acids for comparison.
Two way paper chromatography
Two way paper chromatography gets around the problem of separating out substances which have very similar Rf values.
I'm going to go back to talking about coloured compounds because it is much easier to see what is happening. You can perfectly well do this with colourless compounds - but you have to use quite a lot of imagination in the explanation of what is going on!
This time a chromatogram is made starting from a single spot of mixture placed towards one end of the base line. It is stood in a solvent as before and left until the solvent front gets close to the top of the paper.
In the diagram, the position of the solvent front is marked in pencil before the paper dries out. This is labelled as SF1 - the solvent front for the first solvent. We shall be using two different solvents.
If you look closely, you may be able to see that the large central spot in the chromatogram is partly blue and partly green. Two dyes in...