A History Of X-ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy

x ray fluorescence spectroscopy

Throughout human civilization, there have been fundamental discoveries that go on to shape theories and studies for future generations, as well as provide the human race with new technologies that improve areas of our everyday lives. These discoveries are so useful and so impactful that they stand the test of time, forever redesigning and improving as technology continues to move forward.

One of these discoveries was the utilization of x-rays, high energy bursts of radio waves that offer incredible insights into the inner workings of not only humans but the entire world around us. A modern manifestation of x-rays being used to study the world around us is through the process of x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, a process that serves to provide identification of all elements present within a sample material, with x-rays the catalyst behind the reaction.

In the modern day, this process has been improved, adapted, and specialized to perform a myriad of tasks across a comprehensive range of industries – however, its discovery was made in a much different time.

Read on to find out more about the history of X-ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy.

The discovery

Just 17 years after the x-ray was discovered in 1895 by German scientist Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy became the latest discovery in the x-ray field, emerging as another aspect of an ever-growing and increasingly influential field of study.

Just seven years earlier, in 1906, the English physicist Charles Glover Barkla had become the first person to demonstrate that x-rays could be used in a process called x-ray scattering to determine the number of atoms in a carbon atom, confirming an x-ray’s waved form – and in 1913, Henry Moseley took this understanding to the next level.

Moseley had found that it was possible to use x-ray scattering to number the elements, as firing highly charged x-rays at sample materials triggered a reaction that eroded electrons from an atom’s shell, which caused ‘fluorescent’ radiation to be produced as the atom returned to a stable state. This fluorescent radiation essentially served as a fingerprint for the element in question and saw the recognition of Moseley’s Law, which sets out the relationship between emitted x-ray radiation and an element’s atomic number.

Initial uses

The early 20th century was a booming time for x-ray studies, with half of the Nobel Prizes in Physics awarded between 1914 and 1924 in the field of x-rays.

As for XRF technology, this initially took a while before becoming a reliable and frequent process used for elemental identification, with detector technology only reaching a satisfactory level in the 1940s and 1950s. The 1950s saw the first commercially available x-ray spectrometers.

Modern day uses

In the modern day, XRF technology such as that produced by Malvern Panalytical is used in a comprehensive range of applications, helping to provide cutting-edge accuracy when it comes to elemental identification, the detection of faults and impurities in manufacturing and industry, and the detection of unwanted pollutants and plastics in our natural environment.

The fact that XRF technology is now compact enough to be highly portable and maintain its effectiveness means it’s great for geology and mining processes, as it allows for the quick identification of mining sites and the relevant materials for the operation.

Leah J. Hawk
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