Nile blue is used extensively in biology as a histological stain and fluorescent probe. Its absorption and emission spectra are strongly solvent dependent, with variations larger than 100 nm. The molecule is charged due to an iminium group, and it is therefore an obvious target for gas-phase ion spectroscopy. Here we report the absorption and emission spectra of the mass-selected bare ions isolated in vacuo, and based on our results we revisit the interpretation of solution-phase spectra. An accelerator mass spectrometer was used for absorption spectroscopy where the absorption is represented by the yield of photofragment ions versus excitation wavelength (action spectroscopy). The luminescence experiments were done with a newly built ion trap setup equipped with an electrospray ion source, and some details on the mass selection technique will be given which have not been described before. In vacuo, the absorption and emission maxima are at 580 ± 10 nm and 628 ± 1 nm. These values are somewhat blue-shifted relative to those obtained in most solvents; however, they are much further to the red than those in some of the most non-polar solvents. Furthermore, the Stokes shift in the gas phase (1300 cm−1) is much smaller than that in these non-polar solvents but similar to that in polar ones. An explanation based on charge localization by solvent dipoles, or by counterions in some non-polar solvents, can fully account for these findings. Hence in the case of ions, it is nontrivial to establish intrinsic electronic transition energies from solvatochromic shifts alone.

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