Handheld LIBS

Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS) is an atomic emission spectroscopy technique in which a laser pulse of high intensity is exposed to an absorbing material, causing it to vaporize and create plasma of ionized matter. The resulting spectral emission can then be used to determine the material’s chemical composition. The technique has been well-established in the laboratory for many years, with portable models in the form of a backpack or suitcase having been around for more than a decade. It is only within the last two to three years, however, that LIBS has been commercialized for use as a handheld device.

The availability of a small-size laser source and the development of a non-explosive lithium iron phosphate battery are the two main technological advancements that led to the recent development of handheld LIMS. A user operates the device by aiming it at the target material and pushing a button that fires a pulsed laser through a focusing lens, concentrating the laser to a surface area approximately 50 µm in diameter. As soon as it fires, the high temperature vaporizes the target material, causing plasma induction. The plasma cools after a few hundred micro-seconds and the separated electrons recombine with atoms, emitting light in the UV, optical and IR spectrum. The spectrometer in the handheld unit records the intensity of the emitted light as a function of its frequency, thus producing a spectral pattern. The software installed on the unit then compares the spectral lines with its library to determine the identity and concentration of elements present. The analysis typically takes only a second before results are shown on the screen.

Common applications for handheld LIBS are centered around alloy analysis, most notably in scrap metal sorting. It is also commonly used for geochemical analysis and QC of metals. Its capabilities are frequently compared to those of handheld XRF, which is a strong competitor. In practice, handheld XRF has more difficulty than LIBS in detecting elements lighter than magnesium due to a low fluorescence yield and air interference. LIBS also presents less of a safety concern since it lacks a radioactive source. On the other hand, XRF is known to exhibit higher precision in its analysis.

The LEA was the first commercialized handheld LIBS analyzer, released by Lasersec Systems in May 2013 for forensic applications. The SciAps Z, which is suitable for analyses of geological samples, was introduced in February 2014. Newer versions of this analyzer, the Z-200 and Z-300 were announced at Pittcon in 2016. In April 2014, TSI introduced the ChemLite LIBS Metal Analyzer. In July 2015, Oxford Instruments introduced the mPulse, based on the LIBS technology acquired through its purchase of RMG (see IBO 11/15/13), while Rigaku introduced the KT-100 Katana, which later became the first handheld LIBS to pass regulatory durability tests. In October 2015, Bruker launched the EOS-500, while B&W Tek unveiled its NanoLIBS analyzer.

The adoption of handheld LIBS technologies will become more common as their components continue to get smaller and their capabilities more adept. Although still a very small market, demand is expected to grow rapidly.

Handheld LIBS at a Glance:

Leading Suppliers:

  • SciAps
  • TSI
  • Oxford Instruments

Largest Markets:

  • Metals/Mining
  • Academia
  • Government Testing

Instrument Cost:

  • $25,000–$50,000
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