XRF Analysis

X-ray fluorescence (XRF) is an analytical method that is widely used to determine the elemental composition of rocks, minerals, cement, ceramics, metals, and petroleum. XRF analysis is based on the characteristic wavelengths of X-rays emitted by the atoms in the sample.

XRF analysis
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What are XRF analyses used for?

XRF is a non-destructive test method most typically used for chemical analyses of rocks, minerals, sediments, and liquids in geology, mining, and the petroleum industry.

How does X-ray fluorescence work?

In XRF analysis, the sample is irradiated with a high-energy X-ray beam. While some of the x-rays scatter from the sample (see a comparison between XRF and XRD below), some are absorbed by the atoms in the sample and the atoms start emitting fluorescent light. 

Atoms of different elements emit fluorescent light in their own characteristic wavelengths. The XRF spectrometer measures a spectrum consisting of the different wavelengths emitted by the sample. 

If the sample contains more than one element, a wavelength dispersive spectrometer (WDS) can be used to separate the complex X-ray spectrum into characteristic wavelengths of the individual elements. By comparing the obtained spectrum to a reference data library, the elements in the sample can be identified.

Difference between XRF and XRD

When the sample is irradiated with the X-rays, some of them are absorbed in the atoms, and some scatter. X-ray fluorescence utilizes the absorbed X-rays and the fluorescent light that the absorption creates, while X-ray diffraction analyzes the diffraction patterns produced by the scattered X-rays. 

XRF is often used in environmental studies of rocks and minerals and for quality control in metallurgy and fossil fuels. XRD can be used for analyzing crystalline minerals, but it is also used on polymers, pharmaceuticals, and food products. See the X-ray diffraction method page for further information.

Sample requirements and preparation

XRF analyses require relatively large sample amounts, and the sample must contain relatively large amounts of the analyzed elements. For trace element analysis, the closely related TXRF method (total reflection X-ray fluorescence) is a more appropriate option. Even though XRF can theoretically detect the emission of X-rays from any element, in practice XRF spectrometers have limited ability to accurately measure elements with an atomic number smaller than 11.

XRF can be used to characterize powders, solids, and liquids. Solid samples are usually cut and polished to achieve a smooth surface or crushed to a fine powder. If the powder has a wide range of different elements and grain sizes, the sample can be further mixed with a chemical flux and melted in a furnace or with a gas burner to get accurate results. Melting produces a homogenous, glass-like material from which the elements and their amounts are easier to determine. Another option is to press the powder into a pellet.

Suitable sample matrices

  • Rocks
  • Sediments
  • Ores
  • Minerals
  • Soil and slurry
  • Cement
  • Ceramics
  • Glass
  • Metals
  • Powders
  • Liquids
  • Crude oils
  • Petroleum products

Ideal uses of XRF analysis

  • Compositional analyses of earth samples in geology and environmental studies
  • Soil surveys in geophysics
  • Research of rocks (petrology)
  • Examination of ores in mining
  • Product development and quality control in metallurgy and the manufacturing of cement, ceramics and glass
  • Analyzing the composition of fossil fuels in the petroleum industry

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Frequently asked questions

What is XRF commonly used for?

XRF is commonly used for identifying both major and minor elements as well as determining their concentrations.

The most commonly used applications of XRF are the compositional analyses of geological and petrological samples such as different kinds of rocks and sediments. XRF can be used in geophysical soil surveys, mining, and environmental studies.  Additionally, industries like metallurgy and the petroleum industry along with the manufacturing of cement, ceramics, and glass can utilize XRF in their product development and quality control. 

What are the limitations of XRF?

Small spots of the sample cannot be analyzed with XRF and thus the sample has to be relatively large. Samples typically have to weigh more than one gram and contain relatively large amounts of elements whose absorption and fluorescence effects are reasonably well understood. In order to perform a proper identification of the elements, compositionally similar standards for the sample material have to be available. 

XRF can determine concentrations from 100 wt% (weight percentage) even to sub-ppm levels. However, the limit of detection for trace elements is typically on the order of a few ppm.

Theoretically, XRF can detect the emission of X-rays from an atom of virtually any element. However, in practice, most XRF spectrometers have limited ability to accurately measure elements with an atomic number less than 11.

XRF cannot detect the differences between different isotopes of the same element. Instead, isotope analysis is possible to perform with secondary ion mass spectrometry (SIMS) or thermal ionization mass spectrometry (TIMS). XRF also cannot distinguish ions of the same element with different valence states. Information about the ion composition can be obtained, for example, from wet chemical analysis or Mossbauer spectroscopy.

What kind of samples can be analyzed with XRF?

XRF is suitable for the analysis of relatively large samples weighing more than one gram. Geological and petrological samples, such as rocks, ores, minerals, and soil are especially well-suited for the analysis, but industrial products like ceramics and glass as well as petroleum products are also suitable.

When analyzing major elements, usually Si, Ti, Al, Fe, Mn, Mg, Ca, Na, K, and P can be determined. In the case of trace elements, usually Ba, Ce, Co, Cr, Cu, Ga, La, Nb, Ni, Rb, Sc, Sr, Rh, U, V, Y, Zr, and Zn are well-detected by XRF. 

Especially, when studying rocks, ores, sediments, and minerals, the material should be ground down to a fine powder and homogenized. Sometimes, especially when analyzing trace elements, the analysis can be performed directly from the powder, but commonly the powdered sample has to be homogenized by melting it down with a chemical flux.

What is Measurlabs?

Measurlabs offers a variety of laboratory analyses for product developers and quality managers. We perform some of the analyses in our own lab, but mostly we outsource them to carefully selected partner laboratories. This way we can send each sample to the lab that is best suited for the purpose, and offer high-quality analyses with more than a thousand different methods to our clients.

How does the service work?

When you contact us through our contact form or by email, one of our specialists will take ownership of your case and answer your query. You get an offer with all the necessary details about the analysis, and can send your samples to the indicated address. We will then take care of sending your samples to the correct laboratories and write a clear report on the results for you.

How do I send my samples?

Samples are usually delivered to our laboratory via courier. Contact us for further details before sending samples.