top of page


XRF (X-ray fluorescence) is a non-destructive analytical technique used to determine the elemental composition of materials. XRF analyzers determine the chemistry of a sample by measuring the fluorescent (or secondary) X-ray emitted from a sample when it is excited by a primary X-ray source. Each of the elements present in a sample produces a set of characteristic fluorescent X-rays (“a fingerprint”) that is unique for that specific element, which is why XRF spectroscopy is an excellent technology for qualitative and quantitative analysis of material composition.


The X-ray fluorescence process

A solid or a liquid sample is irradiated with high energy X-rays from a controlled X-ray tube.

When an atom in the sample is struck with an X-ray of sufficient energy (greater than the atom’s K or L shell binding energy), an electron from one of the atom’s inner orbital shells is dislodged.

The atom regains stability, filling the vacancy left in the inner orbital shell with an electron from one of the atom’s higher energy orbital shells.

The electron drops to the lower energy state by releasing a fluorescent X-ray. The energy of this X-ray is equal to the specific difference in energy between two quantum states of the electron. The measurement of this energy is the basis of XRF analysis

Fundamental Principles of X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF)

The XRF method depends on fundamental principles that are common to several other instrumental methods involving interactions between electron beams and x-rays with samples, including: X-ray spectroscopy (e.g., SEM - EDS), X-ray diffraction (XRD), and wavelength dispersive spectroscopy (microprobe WDS).

The analysis of major and trace elements in geological materials by x-ray fluorescence is made possible by the behavior of atoms when they interact with radiation. When materials are excited with high-energy, short wavelength radiation (e.g., X-rays), they can become ionized. If the energy of the radiation is sufficient to dislodge a tightly-held inner electron, the atom becomes unstable and an outer electron replaces the missing inner electron. When this happens, energy is released due to the decreased binding energy of the inner electron orbital compared with an outer one. The emitted radiation is of lower energy than the primary incident X-rays and is termed fluorescent radiation. Because the energy of the emitted photon is characteristic of a transition between specific electron orbitals in a particular element, the resulting fluorescent X-rays can be used to detect the abundances of elements that are present in the sample.

bottom of page