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The dreaded “amorphous” hump created by x-rays scattering off plastic sample holders has plagued XRD users for decades. It’s a serious enough problem that we make a good volume of these holders from Aluminum which works very well for loose powders. The plastic scatters xrays at around 13 degrees 2Theta (Cu anode tube) which make a real mess of most geological patterns and isn’t fun to model out for Rietveld refinement. Zero background holders like our ZBH-32 work wonderfully in standard sample stages designed for a single sample at a time, but the large plate isn’t compatible with the autosampler.

I recently had a request for a hybrid holder which would allow for analysis of very small volumes of materials while retaining compatibility with the autosampler. This is almost identical to our standard powder holders, but with a well designed specifically for our small ZBH plate.

Key features include:

  • 6061-T6 Al material (anodized or as-machined)
  • Si(510) plate
  • Raised sample well minimizes the area of the sample holder in the plane of diffraction. (Original Siemens design)
  • Beveled well walls minimize the area of Al in the plane of diffraction
  • Other small modifications are made to improve reliability of these holders in the autosampler

Some months ago we had a pair of scientists visit our space to look over a refurbished Siemens D5000. Interestingly enough, they’d planned to use the system for some basic XRD, but mainly for the development of polycapillary optics. This is a fascinating new technology that’s gaining steam out in the R&D centers around the world and merits a full post dedicated to it ASAP. This is the type of “game changing” innovation which hasn’t come along in XRD in decades. They took delivery of their machine a few weeks ago, but while on-site they asked about another project. All that’s really needed is simple phase analysis by XRD with one complication, the material reacts violently when exposed to air.

We roughed out a basic design the same day, but that was only the beginning. Dealing with materials like this necessitates careful consideration of all material and procedures involved in getting it from the lab where it’s synthesized to ours and back. The final design involved billet Aluminum, BUNA rubber o-rings and polyimide (Kapton) film and took quite a while to flesh out. The end result is a complete system which allows the customer to load the samples into individual cells inside their own glove box. The individual cells can be loaded into the case inside the glove box as well. The outer o-rings on the cells seal against chamfered edges on the pockets of the case creating a second sealed area above and below the sample. It’s unlikely that the inner cell would ever rupture, but this protects the polyimide film and adds a substantial extra level of safety.


This is the complete case as it will ship. The flat-head bolts hold everything together and provide the necessary force to seal the chambers.


With the case open, you can see the individual cells along with the top and bottom of the case. The labeling shouldn’t be necessary since there are strict protocols in place for transportation of this material, but it never hurts to be cautious.


The original design called for a slightly more secure seal, but when we started working up the procedure to assemble them, it became clear that something simpler was needed, particularly considering that these will be loaded in a glove-box. An 11th hour rehash necessitated new o-rings, modification of the outer cell rings and complete redesign and fabrication of the cell center sections. I think this was well worth the effort though as they’re much easier to assemble now. There’s even a nice little tool to make it easier to open them back up for disposal or reloading. The original design would have been essential disposable.

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Over the past 15 years, Barnett Shale has become a major resource for natural gas in Texas.  Being located in the North Texas region, it is easy to see the boom of drilling rigs and wells popping up in the suburban and rural areas between Ft. Worth and Denton.  Collaborations between Geologists at universities and major oil companies have put a large amount of research into characterizing shale.  In 2001, Środoń et al. published a journal article in Clays and Clay Minerals that discussed the importance of sample preparation for sediments, such as shale, to be analyzed using X-ray diffraction.

Powder X-ray diffraction is the preferred and best technique to identify and quantify mineral compositions in geological materials such as rocks, sediments, and soils.  Sample preparation and loading are two important factors for accurate quantitative XRD analysis using Rietveld refinement.  Proper sample grinding and using a side-loader or backside loader are common practices to avoid preferred orientation.  At Texray, we have a variety of sample holders for different applications, and we can even custom build holders for those random parts.  However, in this study we wanted to see for ourselves the effect of sample grinding and particle size, and also we wanted to test out our new McCrone Micronizing Mill.  We already knew what the results would be from experience and previous work by Środoń et al., 2001 and Klug and Alexander, 1974, but this was a fun experiment to try with shale.

Shale rock from the North Texas region

Shale Rock from the North Texas region

The rocks (pictured above) were broken up into smaller pieces using a mortar and pestle, and then half was transferred to the McCrone mill for wet grinding and the other half we continued to grind manually using the mortar and pestle.  By the way if you are running out of bench space in the laboratory and are looking for a mill, I highly recommend the McCrone Micronizing Mill because it takes up very the little space and it’s capable of grinding below 10 μm in less than 10 minutes.  After grinding, we loaded the powder samples into a backside loader and analyzed them using a Bruker D5000 X-ray Diffractometer.

Shale XRD Pattern

XRD pattern of Mortar & Pestle Ground Shale (blue) vs McCrone Mill Ground Shale (red)

In the XRD pattern shown above the main differences you will notice between the two grinding methods are peak intensities and a small 2-theta peak shift.  Both of these differences are effects related to particle size distribution and sample loading.  Wet grinding the shale in a McCrone Mill creates smaller uniform particles (~5μm), therefore when loading the sample into holders the powders pack easier and tighter creating a denser layer of material for the X-rays to penetrate, hence higher peak intensities compared to manual grinding.  Sample preparation is one of the most important aspects to quantitative XRD because of preferred orientation and sample displacement.  In order to reduce user error such as, induced preferred orientation, it is essential we learn from previous research and take the proper steps to prepare samples.  The ICDD is a great source for free literature on applications involving XRD and XRF.  We will be posting more discussions on sample preparation and applications in the future.