Portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometry (pXRF) has increased in popularity in recent years. It has become an integral part of the analyst’s toolkit due to its ability to provide low-cost in-situ and ex-situ analysis of a wide range of matrices. While much of the popularity of the technology has stemmed from the exploration and mining industry, it has also become a widely applied tool for environmental quality and assessment.

Technological advancements in instrumentation has led to wider applications, and subsequently market competition among manufacturers to produce instruments that can push the limits of the analytical capability. The dominant manufacturers have improved calibrations, geographic information system capabilities, detector response, battery life and many other features. The improvements to these instruments and their relatively low cost compared to other laboratory chemistry techniques has made them an attractive option for environmental assessors, regulators and researchers.

As environmental assessors we can now look outside the realm of point-and-shoot ‘out of the box’ applications of pXRF. Using different calibration techniques and post-quantification analysis, we can ask a huge range of questions of pXRF technology.

While we can still look at traditional applications like elemental concentrations in a matrix, we can now also look at things like the movement of soils and sediment using tracers in environments like wetlands. We can use spectral analysis to interpret origins of environmental matrices which will become useful when applied to such settings as crop allocation in agriculture, or even pollution tracing at development sites.

Exploring such things as lithium in the environment is another application of pXRF for environmental assessments. Lithium is widely used in batteries and as the world’s tech products reach end of life phases, recycling of lithium and its co-associated elements will become an increasing environmental challenge. Understanding the environmental fate of lithium and the associated elements recovered during recycling by applying pXRF will allow for safe best-practice management of this recycling stream.

A pXRF can also be applied to more unique applications, for example, screening plant leaves for target elements or spectral patterns to assess the presence or absence of certain pollutants. There is also a range of semi-environmental applications which can include site-screening to detect spectral differences in soils which can be then interpreted as an indicator for the previous human occupation of that site.

So there are many environmental applications of pXRF. Really, the applications are limited only by your imagination. Many are tried and tested, many are recently developed and many are yet to be developed. The opportunities for advances in environmental applications of pXRF are endless, so if you have an environmental question that you’d like answered, we would love to hear from you.