Size-exclusion chromatography (SEC), also known as molecular sieve chromatography, is a chromatographic method in which molecules in solution are separated by their size, and in some cases molecular weight. It is usually applied to large molecules or macromolecular complexes such as proteins and industrial polymers. Typically, when an aqueous solution is used to transport the sample through the column, the technique is known as gel-filtration chromatography, versus the name gel permeation chromatography, which is used when an organic solvent is used as a mobile phase. SEC is a widely used polymer characterization method because of its ability to provide good molar mass distribution (Mw) results for polymers.
The main application of gel-filtration chromatography is the fractionation of proteins and other water-soluble polymers, while gel permeation chromatography is used to analyze the molecular weight distribution of organic-soluble polymers. Either technique should not be confused with gel electrophoresis, where an electric field is used to “pull” or “push” molecules through the gel depending on their electrical charges.
The advantages of this method include good separation of large molecules from the small molecules with a minimal volume of eluate, and that various solutions can be applied without interfering with the filtration process, all while preserving the biological activity of the particles to separate. The technique is generally combined with others that further separate molecules by other characteristics, such as acidity, basicity, charge, and affinity for certain compounds. With size exclusion chromatography, there are short and well-defined separation times and narrow bands, which lead to good sensitivity. There is also no sample loss because solutes do not interact with the stationary phase.