An ultratrace detector system for hand-held gas chromatography having high sensitivity, for example, to emissions generated during production of weapons, biological compounds, drugs, etc. The detector system is insensitive to water, air, helium, argon, oxygen, and CO.sub.2. The detector system is basically composed of a hand-held capillary gas chromatography (GC), an insulated heated redox-chamber, a detection chamber, and a vapor trap. For example, the detector system may use gas phase redox reactions and spectral absorption of mercury vapor. The gas chromatograph initially separates compounds that percolate through a bed of heated mercuric oxide (HgO) in a silica--or other metal--aerogel material which acts as an insulator. Compounds easily oxidized by HgO liberate atomic mercury that subsequently pass through a detection chamber which includes a detector cell, such as quartz, that is illuminated with a 254 nm ultra-violet (UV) mercury discharge lamp which generates the exact mercury absorption bands that are used to detect the liberated mercury atoms. Atomic mercury strongly absorbs 254 nm energy is therefore a specific signal for reducing compounds eluting from the capillary GC, whereafter the atomic mercury is trapped for example, in a silicon-aerogel trap.
The United States Government has rights in this invention pursuant to Contract No. W-7405-ENG48 between the United States Department of Energy and the University of California for the operation of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.