XRF: An Overview

Updated: Mar 29, 2020

X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry is an elemental analysis technique with broad application in science and industry. XRF is based on the principle that individual atoms, when excited by an external energy source, emit X-ray photons of a characteristic energy or wavelength. By counting the number of photons of each energy emitted from a sample, the elements present may be identified and quantitated.

XRF can nondestructively analyze gold, silver, and platinum group metals, as well as non precious alloying metals, contaminants, and gold plating, in addition to other materials such as rocks, minerals, sediments and fluids. It works on wavelength-dispersive spectroscopic principles t are similar to an electron microprobe.

A short history

English physicist Henry Moseley was perhaps the father of this technique, since he, building on W.C. Röentgen’s discovery of the high-energy radiation dubbed X-rays, built an X-ray tube that he used to bombard samples with high-energy electrons. In 1912, Moseley discovered a mathematical relationship between the element’s emitted X-ray frequency and its atomic number.

In 1925 Dirk Coster and Yoshio Nishina were the first to use primary X-rays instead of electrons to excite a sample. After Glocker and Schreiber first performed quantitative analysis of materials using XRF in 1928, detector technology had to catch up in order to make the technique practical, which didn’t start until the 1940’s. The 1950’s saw the first commercially produced X-ray spectrometers and in 1970, the lithium drifted silicon detector was developed — a technology still in use today

Modern XRF instruments are capable of analyzing solid, liquid, and thin-film samples for both major and trace (ppm-level) components. The analysis is rapid and usually sample preparation is minimal or not required at all.

Most of the XRF instruments in use today fall into two categories: energy-dispersive (ED) and wavelength-dispersive (WD) spectrometers. Within these two categories are a tremendous variety of differing configurations, X-ray sources and optics, and detector technologies.

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