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Advanced Field Portable Geochemistry and Microanalysis with SciAps Geochem Pro - An Interview with Andrew Somers

In this interview, Andrew Somers from SciAps Australia talks to AZoMining about the new Geochem Pro application for the Z range of handheld elemental analyzers, and the improvements that have been made to their technology over the last year.

We spoke last year about the geochemical applications of LIBS. How has SciAps technology developed since then? What are the main new features of the Z analyzers?

We have learnt a lot in the past year, and applied the benefit of these experiences to improve the overall performance of the Z series analyzers.

The main improvements from a hardware perspective are related to the laser that we use, as well as the grating and spectrometers. The new proprietary PULSAR laser delivers 1 nanosecond, 6 mJ/sec pulses at a rate of 20 Hz.

Our patented and proprietary wide range, high resolution spectrometer design now allows us to capture signals between 190 and 860nm, and even out to 930nm for specific applications. This now allows us to measure O, N, F, Cl, Br plus a much stronger line for K. Combining this with the superb performance we have for Na measurement really opens up new opportunities for major element geochemistry with a hand held device.

On the software side we have also released both our quantitative GeoChem and qualitative GeoChem Pro on-board software for the Z analyzers, and the Profile Builder PC software, for calibration model development and other advanced user functionality.

How have the hardware developments in the Z series influenced the capabilities of the new Geochem Pro app?

The new PULSAR laser, with its greater power and resultant intensified signal, really improves the data quality.

The ability to fire at very high repetition rates allows us many opportunities to perform effective cleaning of the surface, as well as multiple shots at each location to improve sampling without slowing down the total test times.

This is especially significant when using larger raster patterns, for example during elemental distribution mapping and microanalysis. It also allows us to perform screening level data acquisitions more effectively and much faster than before.

Could you tell us about the feedback you've had from customers in the mining/minerals industry? How has this influenced the development of the Z analyzers and the Geochem Pro app?

We have been interfacing with industry and researchers that are interested in the capabilities of LIBS, but also those who have been working with other laser based analytical techniques such as Laser Ablation (e.g. LA-ICP-MS), where similar challenges and opportunities are presented when you have such a spatially precise sampling method.

The spectrometer range that we started with last year was good, but we had a number of requests from customers to analyse some elements that were outside of the capabilities of the instruments at that time. We have responded with an analyzer that meets the needs of a broader range of industrial and research applications, without increasing the cost of the analyzer.

How has the mining industry changed in Australia over the last 12 months? Has this impacted the needs of your customers?

I think the mining industry has been undergoing a broad move for some time now, from being a very high output, production driven model to meet the surging demands in commodities we experienced in the mid 2000s, to a more efficient production model that is driven by project optimisation, and new technologies such as field portable analytical devices.

In recent years we have seen many commodity prices decline in response to new production coming online, and reduced demand from countries like China. This has had a severe impact on exploration budgets in particular, but there are still commodities that are driving new exploration, such as lithium and graphite - and there is still funding available for good projects in other commodities.

Because of these changes in focus, we are seeing people interested in new technologies such as LIBS, to allow them to test for elements such as Li (which has never been possible before with a handheld elemental analyzer), and also to improve overall efficiencies in mining and mineral processing.

The Z series analyzer can present new opportunities to clients such as these, with high speed, field portable data acquisition for applications that have not been possible in this setting previously.

Can you explain briefly how the spatial analysis/microanalysis function in Geochem Pro works?

GeoChem Pro performs several qualitative analysis functions using a data set derived from a raster pattern of 50μm laser shots, covering a 2 mm2 area at spacings of 62.5 μm. At this stage this is a fixed pattern, but we will soon introduce user options to customise this.

Firstly, GeoChem Pro analyzes and reports on the presence of elements based on the presence of spectral peaks in the analytical data that relate to these elements, and also gives you some statistical indication of the number of peaks observed and therefore the quality of the data.

A real benefit of this approach is that you avoid the need to create time-consuming matrix-specific calibrations.

The Z provides a list of elements based on known peak locations, and estimated relative abundances. A great deal can be deduced about the minerals present from these tests.

With regards to the microanalysis function, Geochem Pro shows the relative high and low intensity regions within the sampled area, producing a high quality image of the sample with “heat map” overlays displaying the relative distribution of elements in the sample.

Spectra are captured and stored for each individual position (currently 256) in as little as 30 seconds. On board the Z-Series analyzer, the operator can use in-built tables of characteristic wavelengths for specific elements to interrogate the data, and modulate the opacity and amplification of the signal to best show the elemental distribution patterns before saving the images.

How does a laser-based analyzer compare to an x-ray analyzer in the field? What are the main benefits for the operator?

The main analytical benefits in using a handheld LIBS relative to a conventional field-portable XRF are related to the speed of analysis, the elemental range possible and the ability to spatially map a sample and/or analyse a very specific part of the sample such as a vein or mineral crystal.

Other important advantages are related to the lack of x-ray radiation, making it safe to hold a sample against the front of the analyzer without risk of exposure to x-rays, and eliminating the requirement for a test stand to do such analysis. This also provides advantages with regards to regulatory controls, as the use of the laser based analytical systems is far less onerous than fpXRF in most cases.

When using the Z-series analyzers, the chance of puncturing the aperture window is vastly reduced, due to the use of a hard quartz blast shield that separates the sample from the optics and detectors. In the rare case that a component does need to be replaced, both the CCD detectors and the lasers are much cheaper than the CCD or Si-PIN detectors and x-ray tubes utilised in fpXRF, keeping repair costs down.

The vast majority of fpXRF manufacturers are reliant on third parties to supply both their x-ray tubes and detectors. SciAps manufacture our own proprietary principal components, which also helps us to reduce costs and maintain good value for our clients.

Video demonstration of the SciAps Z analyzer with Geochem Pro App

What are the main new capabilities of the Z series and Geochem Pro app that you are most excited about, and that weren’t previously possible in a field-portable analyzer?

The advent of the Z-Series handheld LIBS has allowed field portable analysis of a range of elements that simply were not possible before, such as Li, Be, B, C, Na, heavy rare earth elements (HREE), and halogens such as F.

The Geochem Pro features related to identifying and recording spatial distribution of elements have previously been exclusive to very expensive laboratory equipment, and performing anything like this with a hand held device would have seemed fantastic and a long way off, even as recently as two years ago before I joined SciAps.

Finally, the Z has onboard GPS, so that your data can be automatically tagged with the location of the sample, so operators so not need a dedicated GPS device, and there is no need to manually merge the composition and location data.

What further developments do you envision for the future?

We will focus on improving the user experience, both through further improving the analytical performance, and also improving the way users can interface with the analyzers through our software.

The GeoChem and GeoChem Pro software will evolve considerably over the next few months as we add more functionality, particularly in terms of data management and interfacing seamlessly with 3rd party software. The GeoChem software suite will also be moving towards more advanced functions such as on-board elemental ratios and indexes.

The goal is to get the GeoChem Pro functionality to perform full quantitative analysis at each raster position, allowing our customers to extract even more value from the SciAps Z Series of handheld LIBS analyzers.

Download the Geochem Pro brochure for more information

About Andrew Somers

Andrew SomersAndrew Somers is an Australian earth and environmental scientist with a trans-disciplinary academic background.

His employment history ranges from working with Rio Tinto Exploration as a graduate geologist to recent and current roles involved in product development for, and sales to, the global exploration and mining industry.

Andrew has acted in the past as an expert technical representative with regards to mining for global market leaders in the manufacture and development of FPXRF technology. In addition to FPXRF he has also worked with field portable XRD and NIR Spectrometers.

Andrew is currently looking at new technologies with the potential to integrate with existing field portable analytical systems to develop new approaches of technological based mineral exploration, mining, mineral processing and other natural resources focused applications.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Will Soutter

Written by

Will Soutter

Will has a B.Sc. in Chemistry from the University of Durham, and a M.Sc. in Green Chemistry from the University of York. Naturally, Will is our resident Chemistry expert but, a love of science and the internet makes Will the all-rounder of the team. In his spare time Will likes to play the drums, cook and brew cider.

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