Chromatographs separate the chemical components of a mixture. Gas chromatography (GC) is used specifically to separate and analyze compounds that can be vaporized. The ideas behind chromatography were developed in the early 1900s, but GC was not invented until the 1940s. Improvements to the instrumentation led to a wider acceptance of the method by the 1960s, when it became the preeminent form of chromatography. GC is often paired with other analytical instruments and methods, like mass spectrometry (MS), to make the most of the data it provides.
As GC became more reliable and more sensitive—this technology can now detect levels as minuscule as parts per billion—scientists added more applications to its repertoire. Most recently, GC-MS has become the method of choice for various forms of environmental study, especially the detection of toxic substances in our air, water, and soil. While GC may not work as quickly as depicted on television shows like CSI, it has provided researchers with a very close look at the world around us.