Life Sciences

Endless Summer

Matt Nowell, EBSD Product Manager, EDAX

My family and I love the beach. We love to swim in the water, ride the waves, and play in the sand. Each summer we typically spend time at Sunset Beach, North Carolina. After years of seeing the cool stuff in the SEM, materials science and microscopy are always topics of discussion. This year, after enjoying the musical Hamilton, my wife was inspired to start working on a periodic table of elements rap song. My 13-year-old learned more about metalworking watching the History Channel show, Forged in Fire, where participants are challenged to make different weapons from assorted metallic sources. My favorite part was watching them evaluate different parts of a bicycle for heat-treatable steel to recycle. One of my favorite moments though was unpacking my beach shoes on the first day.

Generally, when we visit a beach, we try to bring home a shell or a piece of driftwood. However, when I was putting on my shoes for the first time, I noticed some sand was still present. My last beach trip had been to the Cayman Islands. I immediately noticed that this sand looked much different than the sand at Sunset Beach. I decided to save a little bit of each for some microscopy and microanalysis when I got back home.

When I looked at them both more closely, I saw that the sand from Sunset Beach (SB) on the left was much darker with black flecks, while the sand from Grand Cayman (GC) was much lighter. Thinking about the possible composition of the sand got me thinking about the bladesmithing competition held at the TMS annual meetings. One year, the team from UC Berkeley created a sword using magnetite found at local beaches using magnets. I thought it would be interesting to examine both of these sands with my SEM, EDS, and EBSD tools.

Sand grains from Sunset Beach
Sand grains from Sunset Beach.
Sand grains from Grand Cayman
Sand grains from Grand Cayman.

 

Initially I placed a bit of sand on an aluminum stub for SEM and EDS analysis. To reduce charging effects, I used the Low Vacuum capability of our FEI Teneo FEG-SEM, running at 0.1 mbar pressure. Images were collected using the Annual BackScatter (ABS) detector for atomic number contrast imaging. The sand grains from Sunset Beach were generally a little smaller than the Grand Cayman sand, as expected from visual inspection. Both sands exhibited cracking and weathering, which isn’t surprising in hindsight either. Many grains show flat surfaces, with internal structure visible with ABS imaging contrast.

I followed the imaging work with compositional analysis using EDS. The Sunset Beach sand was primarily composed of silicon and oxygen grains, which I suspect is quartz. The single brighter grain in Figure 3 was composed of an iron-titanium oxide. The Grand Cayman sand was primarily a calcium carbonate (Ca-C-O) material. The more needle shaped grains were primarily sodium and chlorine, which I assume is then salt that has solidified during the evaporation of the water. All this leads me to believe I really didn’t do a good job of cleaning my shoes after Grand Cayman.

While quartz being present in sand wasn’t surprising to me, the observation of calcium carbonate did remind me of some geological homework I did on the island. The water in Grand Cayman was very clear, which made it great for snorkeling. We swam around and saw a coral reef, a sunken ship, lots of fish, and stingrays. To understand why the water was so clear, I read that it was the lack of topsoil, and the erosion and runoff of topsail to the water that was responsible for the clarity. Looking again at this reference, it mentions that the top layer of the island is primarily composed of carbonates. The erosion of this material would explain the primary composition of the beach sand in my shoes.

Of course, the next step now is analyzing these sands with EBSD to determine the crystal structure of the materials. I’ve started the process. I’ve mounted some of the sand in epoxy, and hand polished to get some flat surfaces for analysis. I’m able to get EBSD patterns, but getting a good background is going to be tricky. I think the next step will be to watch my colleague Shawn Wallace’s webinar on Optimizing Backgrounds on MultiPhase samples to be presented on September 27th. You can also register for this here.

In the meantime, I’ll keep the sand samples on my desk to remind me of summer as the colder Utah winters will be approaching. It will be a good reason to stay inside and write the next chapter of this analysis for another blog post.

Vacationing Between a Rock and a Hard Place?

Shawn Wallace, Applications Engineer, EDAX.

One of the perks of both my degree (Geology) and my current job is that I have travelled extensively. In all those travels, I had been to 47 of the 48 contiguous US States, with Maine being the missing one. This year, I decided to be selfish and dragged the family to Maine on vacation, so I that could tick off the final one.

Being a member of the Wallace family means vacation is a time for strenuous hikes and beating on rocks to unlock their inner goodies, to add to our ever growing rock and mineral collection. This vacation was no different. Maine is home to some of the best studied and known Pegmatites, and they quickly became our goal. Pegmatites are neat for a several reasons, the main two being that they tend to form giant crystals (a 19 foot long Beryl found in Maine) and weird minerals in general tend to form in them.

I was able to track down some publicly accessible sites, found a lovely home base to rent for the week, and we set off for a week long rockhounding adventure. Ok not all week. We took a couple days off to go swimming, as it got up over 90F (>32C).

Figure 1. Dendrites cover this massive feldspar sample on nearly all faces.

Our first stops yielded the usual kind of rocks I was expecting, but another site did not. There we found dendrites everywhere. The rock itself is a massive feldspar (Fig. 1). You can see that most of the dendrites nucleate at the edge of a fracture surface and then do their fractal thing on the surface itself. Wanting to better understand the sample, I started searching for previous EBSD work on geological dendrites. While a lot exists in the metals world, very little exists in the geological world. To me, this means I have work to do. Let’s see what I can do to get some useful data on this sample!

P.S. I have Alaska and Hawaii to go. Who needs an onsite training in those states? 😉

It came from outer space!

Dr. Jens Rafaelsen, Applications Engineer, EDAX

One of the interesting aspects of being in applications is the wide variety of interesting samples that you come across and this one came up when I was looking for a sample for an upcoming webinar, where I needed some ‘pretty’ maps. Our US EBSD applications engineer Shawn Wallace was previously at The Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and consequently he knows quite a bit about space rocks. He handed me a thin section of a meteorite labeled NWA 10296 (more information at https://www.lpi.usra.edu/meteor/metbull.php?code=62421) and it did not disappoint.

There were a lot of interesting features in the sample, but I ended up concentrating on one of the large chondrules shown below.

Figure 1. BSE image

The primary composition of the sample is olivine (magnesium iron silicate) and the maps below show a high concentration of the Mg internal to the chondrule with an outer perimeter low in Mg and Si. The iron within the chondrule is forming particulates with low content of O and some veins of Al is also seen while the outer perimeter is an iron oxide.

Figure 2. Mg, Si and O maps (left to right).

My astronomy classes are long behind me and I can’t claim to be able to extract deep insight as to the formation and origin of this meteor but regardless, there’s something fascinating about looking at some of the early matter of the universe. As I heard Emma Bullock phrase it at the Lehigh Microscopy School, “It might just be an old rock, but it’s an old rock from outer space!”.

Figure 3. Fe (left) and Al (right) maps.

The upcoming webinar is less about space rocks and more about mapping and data representation so if this has your interest, please join us April 11 2018. Click here to register . Alternatively you can always find past webinars on our homepage https://www.edax.com/news-events/webinars

What Kind of Leaves Are These?

Dr. Bruce Scruggs, XRF Product Manager, EDAX

This year is shaping up to be an interesting year for travel. Five countries and counting, and I’m not even including a stopover in Texas. The last trip was to Brazil. Beautiful country. But, there’s a reason you see snack and beverage vendors roaming the side of the highways in Rio and Sao Paulo..…

I started out with a micro-XRF workshop at the Center for Mineral Technology at the Federal University at Rio de Janeiro. We were working out of the Gemological Research Laboratory with Dr. Jurgen Schnellrath. At the end of the technical presentations, we analyzed some various pieces of jewelry that participants from the workshop brought. I must admit that this makes me a bit nervous to analyze anything with unforeseen sentimental value and I refuse to analyze engagement and wedding rings. A large pair of blue sapphire earrings turned out to be glass. (Purchased at a garage sale at a garage sale price. So, no big surprise …) Another smaller set of blue sapphire earrings were found to be natural sapphires accompanied by a sigh of relief from the owner. (They came from a reputable jewelry shop with a reputable jewelry shop price.)

Gold leaf “Gold leaf'” embedded in resin

At the end, we analyzed what was termed “gold leaf” jewelry, i.e. a ring and a pair of earrings. The style of these pieces was thin gold leaf foil embedded in resin. The owner was one of the younger students in the lab and she had purchased the jewelry herself from a relatively well-known designer’s collection. The goal was to measure for the presence of gold. Since the gold leaf was embedded in resin, XRF was the ideal tool to measure the pieces non-destructively. The jewelry also had some rather odd topography at times given the surrounding resin, but the Orbis had no problem to target the gold leaf given the co-axial geometry of the exciting X-ray and video imaging. I would have liked to have used the excuse that we couldn’t target the sample accurately because of XRF system geometry. There was no gold. Copper / Zinc alloy. That was it. She had paid about $30 US for the earrings and she said she felt cheated. I kept thinking “Cheated? Maybe … live a little, wait until you buy a house!” Later, I was searching the internet looking for a technical definition for “gold leaf”. I knew I was onto something when I found a webpage that said that gold leaf was “traditionally” 22K gold thin foil used for gilding. The page later described modern Copper/Zinc alloy metal leaf “… offering the same rich look of gold leaf, but at a fraction of the price….” Apparently, this metal leaf can be found at art stores. Who knew?

From there, we went on to the state of Sao Paulo and did a workshop at the Center for Nuclear Energy in Agriculture at the University of Sao Paulo. During the workshop, some of the students gave presentations on their work. I saw a very interesting experimental setup with live plants being measured in the Orbis. The plant’s roots were placed in a water bath doped with various forms of minerals or fertilizers. The whole plant, roots, stem, leaves, was then inserted into the Orbis and the stem was measured to monitor the uptake time for the relevant components in the bath. The plants could be moved in and out of the chamber to monitor the uptake over extended periods of time and over various portions of the plant.

On the way to the Sao Paulo airport, I had the pleasure of sitting in the longest traffic jam I have ever endured with the monotony being broken by roaming snack and beverage vendors. It was quite the sight to watch the peanut vendors carrying propane fueled peanut warmers traversing the lane dividers on the highway with the occasional motorcycle speeding between the cars along the same lane dividers.
Tip for next time … buy the Brazilian produced chocolate before going to the airport. The selection at the airport is rather limited and you never know when you may be having more fun than humans should be allowed to have watching motorcycles and peanut hawkers.

XRF: Old Tech Adapting to New Times

Andrew Lee, Senior Applications Engineer, EDAX

X-rays were only discovered by Wilhelm Roentgen in 1895, but by the early 1900’s, research into X-rays was so prolific that half the Nobel Prizes in physics between 1914 to 1924 were awarded in this relatively new field. These discoveries set the stage for 1925, when the first sample was irradiated with X-rays. We’ve immortalized these early founders by naming formulas and coefficients after them. Names like Roentgen and Moseley seem to harken back to a completely different era of science. But here we are today a century later, still using and teaching those very same principles and formulas when we talk about XRF. This is because the underlying physics has not really changed much, and yet, XRF remains as relevant today as it ever was. You can’t say that for something like telephone technology.

XRF has traditionally been used for bulk elemental analysis, associated with large collimators, and pressed pellet samples. For many decades, these commercial units were not the most sophisticated instruments (although Apollo 15 and 16 in 1971 and 1972 included bulk XRF units). Modern hardware and software innovations to the core technique have allowed XRF to adapt to its surroundings in a way, becoming a useful instrument in many applications where XRF previously had little to offer. Micro-XRF was born this way, combining the original principles with newer hardware and software advancements. In fact, micro-XRF is included on the new NASA rover, scheduled for launch to Mars in 2020.

Biological/life sciences is one of those fields where possibilities are now opening as XRF technology progresses. A great example that comes to mind for both professional and personal reasons is the study of neurodegenerative diseases. Many such diseases, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), exhibit an imbalance in metal ions such as Cu, Fe, and Zn in the human body. While healthy cells maintain “metal homeostasis”, individuals with these neurodegenerative diseases cannot properly regulate, which leads to toxic reactive oxygen species. For example, reduced Fe and Cu levels can catalyze the production of hydroxyl radicals which lead to damaged DNA and cell death. Imaging the distribution of biological metals in non-homogenized tissue samples is critical in understanding the role of these metals, and hopefully finding a cure. The common language between the people who studied physics versus the people who studied brain diseases? Trace metal distribution!

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to analyze a few slices of diseased human tissue in the EDAX Orbis micro-XRF (Figure 1 and 2), working towards proving this concept. Although the results were not conclusive either way, it was still very interesting to be able to detect and see the distribution of trace Cu near the bottom edge of the tissue sample. XRF provided unique advantages to the analysis process, and provided the necessary elemental sensitivity while maintaining high spatial resolution. This potential has since been recognized by other life science applications, such as mapping nutrient intake in plant leaves or seed coatings.

Figure 1. Stitched montage video image of the diseased human tissue slice, with mapped area highlighted in red. Total sample width ~25 mm.

Figure 1. Stitched montage video image of the diseased human tissue slice, with mapped area highlighted in red. Total sample width ~25 mm.

Figure 2. Overlaid element maps: Potassium{K(K) in green} and Copper {Cu(K) in yellow} from mapped area in Figure 1, showing a clear area of higher Cu concentration. Total mapped width ~7.6 mm.

Figure 2. Overlaid element maps: Potassium{K(K) in green} and Copper {Cu(K) in yellow} from mapped area in Figure 1, showing a clear area of higher Cu concentration. Total mapped width ~7.6 mm.

Sometimes, the application may not be obvious, or it may seem completely unrelated. But with a little digging, common ground can be found between the analysis goal and what the instrument can do. And if the technology continues to develop, there seems to be no limit to where XRF can be applied, whether it be outwards into space, or inwards into the human biology.