I parked my butt on the granite steps and waited in the shade of a campus building. As good as his word, Dan Hanson of Olympus Innov-X came to meet me to show me a real-life device that reminded me of Spock's tricorder in Star Trek.
When I was a young geology student many moons ago, I used to study the variation of chemical composition in the Earth's many rocks, minerals and soils. Different elements could spell the route to finding a new platinum deposit or tracing out plumes of pollution around old chemical plants. In my day the effort required to identify chemicals in samples meant days or weeks worth of work, taking samples back to the lab and painstakingly analyzing them.
The world has changed.
X-ray fluorescence, or XRF, is one way of determining what elements are present in a sample of material. The astounding thing to me is that the old XRF machines weighing a ton can now be replaced for many purposes by an XRF machine not much larger than a quarter-inch drill. The tube source of X-rays in the device is similar to what powers medical devices -- but on a much smaller scale.
Dan had his device in a small, black suitcase. He gave me the background on how the instrument had been miniaturized since my days in the lab. Then he held the device against the granite on which we were sitting and pulled the trigger. In less than a minute, it had created data on which chemical elements were present in the rock. Knowing granite as I do -- it's a common rock -- I wasn't surprised at the read out. But I was impressed with the speed of the analysis and the minor elements the device was identifying.
It seemed to me that I was looking at Spock's tricorder.
Dan and I next stepped over to a very different kind of rock that my university had conveniently made into nearby benches. Again, we just held the device against the stone and pulled the trigger. The data rolled in.
Finally we wandered over to sandstone that forms the entrance to the student union building. We analyzed that, too.
Total time elapsed for three pieces of work: about five minutes. Clearly Dan's device could save a company or a prospector oodles of money on assays compared to the old way of doing business.
The hand-held device has some limits. It's much better at certain applications than others. It does very well, for example, identifying the metals in alloys.
"The scrap iron business is one of our better customers," Dan told me. "They use it to identify stainless steel on the spot, so it can be sorted into a different bin from the rest of what they process because it's worth more. For that type of work, the analysis takes only half a second."
Another example of what the tricorder does well is help with major demolition and salvage projects.
"One of our customers paid for his on the first day he had it on the job. They were taking apart an old chemical plant. The solder that had been used on the pipes contained silver. So they could pull that out separately and sell it," he said.
The basic model of the XRF costs about $22,000. Part of that cost is the X-ray "guts" of the tool, and part of it pays for the complex software that calibrates the device and can be changed for different applications.
Another, top of the line model does an analysis called X-ray diffraction, as well. That means the tool can tell you not just chemical composition but which minerals are present in the sample.
Although Dan works with the device every day, he's still impressed by it.
"We don't know yet all we can do with it. There's more to learn," he said with a smile.
As I've noted in this column from time to time, science and technology continue to make progress even though other parts of our collective lives all too often don't seem to. That's one of the reasons I'm still quite hopeful about the world's future, despite our current economic challenges.
E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. Peters can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.