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Chromatography involves any laboratory technique used to separate a mixture into its fundamental components. The mixture is first dissolved in a fluid (gas or liquid). This is called the mobile phase. This fluid then goes through a structure called the stationary phase. The stationary phase has certain properties that facilitate the separation of the mixture in the fluid phase. As the fluid phase travels through the stationary phase, differential partitioning causes the constituents to travel at different speeds, thus causing the separation.

Chromatography serves two main purposes in a lab environment: preparative or analytical. Preparative chromatography is a form of purification in that it separates the components for a more advanced use. For example, a chromatography technique might be used to separate DNA from the other components of a cell in order to perform further analysis on a sample of pure DNA. Analytical chromatography serves to demonstrate the relative proportions of components in a mixture. A lot of times, a single chromatography procedure will be both preparative and analytical.