Microanalysis That’s Out of This World!

Dr. Jonathan Lee, Application Scientist, Gatan

Working as a cathodoluminescence (CL) application scientist at Gatan, I observe a great variety of interesting specimens from semiconductor devices, plastics, and geological samples to novel nanoscale optical devices demonstrating the capabilities of the Monarc® Pro CL detector. In case you don’t know, CL is the visible, ultraviolet, and infrared light emitted by many specimens in the scanning electron microscope (SEM). Recently, I was contacted regarding a meteorite sample and asked what analysis I could demonstrate using CL. As a physicist and amateur astronomer, I was naturally very excited at the rare opportunity to analyze something that literally came from out of this world! You might say I was… over the moon 🌙!

The sample is a thin-section from a meteorite collected from Antarctica – Miller Range 090010, you can read more about the classification here: Meteoritical Bulletin: Entry for Miller Range 090010 (usra.edu). Likely to have been a constituent of the asteroid belt, our specimen had a trajectory that eventually led it to fall to Earth. The study of these meteorites allows us to understand more about the age and history of our solar system. Given the origins and unusual conditions experienced by meteorites, the microstructure can be incredibly complex, but often, chondritic meteorites like this one contain calcium aluminum inclusions (CAIs) and corundum grains which are among the first solids to condense from the solar nebula! Now, before I get wrapped up with the Cosmic Calendar, let’s take a look at our specimen!

Image overlay from a CAI region of meteorite specimen (gray) secondary electron and (green) unfiltered CL.

Figure 1. Image overlay from a CAI region of meteorite specimen (gray) secondary electron and (green) unfiltered CL.

CL revealed so much new information, and this was an exciting first result! For geological specimens, unfiltered CL images can be very useful to reveal mineral texture, but the real nitty-gritty information is found in the spectrum. So many of the grains showed such strong luminescence that I was eager to learn more.

Our friends at EDAX recently installed an Octane Elite Energy Dispersive Spectroscopy (EDS) Detector on the same SEM as the Monarc. EDS and CL are fantastically complementary techniques for sample analysis. EDS is great for elemental quantification but falls short when trying to identify trace elements, crystallographic phases, or grain boundaries – where CL shines! Equipped with these powerful tools, I collected my first multi-hyperspectral data, capturing CL and EDS signals simultaneously. Take a look at some of the results:

(left) True color representation of the CL spectrum image (color) overlaid with SE image (gray), and (right) extracted CL spectra from points 1 (aqua fill), 2 (red), and 3 (green).

Figure 2. (left) True color representation of the CL spectrum image (color) overlaid with SE image (gray), and (right) extracted CL spectra from points 1 (aqua fill), 2 (red), and 3 (green).

(left) Elemental quantity maps extracted from the EDS spectrum image corresponding to aluminum (blue), calcium (green), and magnesium (red); and (right) extracted EDS spectra from points 1 (aqua fill), 2 (red), and 3 (green). Points 1, 2, and 3 are the same locations as in Figure 2.

Figure 3. (left) Elemental quantity maps extracted from the EDS spectrum image corresponding to aluminum (blue), calcium (green), and magnesium (red); and (right) extracted EDS spectra from points 1 (aqua fill), 2 (red), and 3 (green). Points 1, 2, and 3 are the same locations as in Figure 2.

Both techniques were very revealing. In addition to Mg, Ca, and Al, the EDS spectrum image (hyperspectral image) detected other elements, some in high abundance like O and Si, and others which were less abundant, including Fe, C, Ti, and Na. We discovered geological materials like hibonite, corundum, and apatite but could not discern which mineral complexes they were involved in. At first glance, the CL and EDS maps looked very similar, but the more I looked, the more I realized there were significant differences, and so I decided to dig a little deeper with the CL spectrum image. The CL spectrum shown in Figure 2 indicates the presence of several trace elements. By looking at the difference of intensities at the smaller sharp peaks in contrast with the surrounding intensities, I was able to differentiate two maps from the CL data, which likely correspond to the presence of trace elements, one with an emission peak at 460 nm (Fe in corundum) and the other at 605 nm (Sm in apatite).

Extraction of CL trace elements (Fe in corundum) found at 460 nm (red) and (Sm in apatite) 605 nm (green).

Figure 4. Extraction of CL trace elements (Fe in corundum) found at 460 nm (red) and (Sm in apatite) 605 nm (green).

(left) Bandpass CL image displaying 580 ± 20 nm and (right) colorized EDS map for Al (blue), Ca (green), and Mg (red).

Figure 5. (left) Bandpass CL image displaying 580 ± 20 nm and (right) colorized EDS map for Al (blue), Ca (green), and Mg (red).

EDS and CL composite image including EDS elemental maps for aluminum(blue) and magnesium (yellow); and trace elements iron in corundum (green) and samarium in apatite (red) as revealed by CL.

Figure 6. EDS and CL composite image including EDS elemental maps for aluminum(blue) and magnesium (yellow); and trace elements iron in corundum (green) and samarium in apatite (red) as revealed by CL.

The data gathered from this sample may give a glimpse into the history of our solar system’s evolution. It also demonstrates the need for complementary techniques when analyzing complex samples. I want to thank NASA for generously providing the sample used in this study, Gatan and EDAX for providing me the opportunity to work with it, and the nature of the universe for generating this message in a bottle and letting it find its way to our lab!

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