Dr. René de Kloe, Applications Scientist, EDAX
2022 was a year of changes. In the beginning, I set up a desk in the scanning electron microscope (SEM) lab where, without truly reaching out, I only needed to turn in my chair to switch from emails and virtual customers on my laptop to the live energy dispersive spectroscopy (EDS) and electron backscatter diffraction (EBSD) system and real data on the microscope. As travel restrictions gradually eased worldwide, we were all able to start meeting “real” people again. After almost two years of being grounded, I finally met people face to face again, discussing their analysis needs, and answering questions do not compare to online meetings. We restarted in-person training courses, and I participated in many external courses, exhibitions, and conferences, reaching out to microscopists all over Europe.
And as always, I try to correlate real life with some nice application examples. And what is similar to reaching out to people in the microanalysis world? Reaching out to things! So, what came to mind are remote thermal sensors, which most of us will have at home in the kitchen: a thermostat in an oven and a wired thermometer that you can use to measure food temperatures. And I just happened to have a broken one that was ready to be cut up and analyzed.
On the outside, these two sensors looked very similar; both were thin metal tubes connected to a control unit. Because of this similarity, I was also expecting more or less the same measuring method, like using a thermocouple in both thermometers. But to my surprise, that was not quite the case.
The long tube of the food thermometer was mostly empty. Right at the tip, I found this little sensor about 1 mm across connected to copper wires that led to the control unit. After mounting and careful sectioning, I could collect EDS maps showing that the sensor consisted of a central block of Mn-Co-Fe-oxide material sandwiched between silver electrodes soldered to the copper-plated Ni wires.
Note that in the image, you only see one of the wires, the other is still below the surface, and I did not want to polish it any deeper.
This was no thermocouple.
Instead, the principle of this sensor is based on measuring the changing resistivity with temperature. The EBSD map of the central Co-Mn-De oxide area shows a coarse-grained structure without any preferred orientation to make the resistivity uniform in all directions.
And where the tube of the food thermometer was mostly empty, the tube of the oven thermostat sensor was completely empty. There were not even electrical connections. The sensor was simply a thin hollow metal tube that contained a gas that expands when heated. This expansion would move a small disk with a measurement gauge that was then correlated with a temperature readout. Although this sounded very simple, some clever engineering was needed to prevent the tube from pinching shut when bending and moving it during installation.
I cut and polished the tube, and an EBSD map of the entire cross-section is shown below.
The tube is constructed out of three layers of a Fe-Cr-Ni alloy with fine-grained multiphase chromium phosphide layers in between. This microstructure is what provides corrosion protection, and it also adds flexibility to the tube. And this, in turn, is crucial to prevent cracks from forming that would cause the leaking of the contained gas, which is critical in getting a good temperature reading.
The detailed map below shows a section of the phosphide layer. There are two chromium phosphide phases, and in between, there are dendritic Ni grains that link everything together.
When you look at the microstructure of both sensors in detail, it is possible to determine how they work, and you can appreciate why they have been designed as they are. The two devices are efficient and tailored to their intended use. The oven thermostat is designed to be mounted in a fixed position to be secure so that it can be used for a very long time. The food thermometer is very flexible and can easily be moved around.
In that respect, I feel there is another similarity between these sensors and the different kinds of meetings between people we have experienced over the past year. It does not matter how you do it; you can always reach out and feel some warmth.
I wish everybody a very happy and peaceful 2023.