Material analysis

Nuclear technology is used to analyse materials in a wide range of areas, such as environmental pollution studies, biomedical research, geology and archaeological science. The IAEA assists its Member States in their research activities, training of qualified staff and the development of innovative technologies in this field.

Some of the best analytical techniques and applications can be provided by accelerators. Consequently, accelerator-based technologies are regarded by many IAEA Member States as a key element to serve social and economic development. The Agency promotes the utilization of accelerators through the building and sharing of knowledge in Member States; the development and application of innovative nuclear science; and the development of innovative nuclear energy systems.

Accelerator-based analytical techniques have a great impact across many areas of nuclear science and its applications. These include:

  • Biomedical sciences: chemical elements in tissue sections, disease mechanisms, high-resolution imaging and intracellular distribution of bio-metals;
  • Environmental sciences: air pollution and aerosol studies, some of which can go down to one nanogram per square centimetre for some elements, as well as 3D elemental quantitative imaging;
  • Agriculture: plant genomics, soil studies, animal and plant imaging;
  • Cultural heritage: characterization of archaeological and historical materials;
  • Materials studies: nanostructured materials, light metals and alloys, electronic materials; and
  • Forensics: identification of suspects from extremely small and diluted samples down to one nanogram per square centimetre.

An important tool to characterize the properties and performance of materials is the Ion Beam Analysis (IBA). Another is synchrotron radiation which, as well as neutron, ion and electron beams, can be used for the real-time characterization of materials. With this technology, various research and technological challenges can be tackled that are specific to using certain materials in energy-related applications. Better understanding the factors that degrade a material’s performance, whether resulting from use or from ageing, can help address such challenges.

The major advantage of applying IBA techniques is that they provide both qualitative and quantitative analytical information. If a focussed beam is scanned over a sample, elemental information can be collected with a high lateral resolution. By mapping the analytical information, it is possible to create 2D or 3D distributions. The tomography provided through this technique is particularly important for biological samples.

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