Lighting up the study of low-density materials

Lighting up the study of low-density materials

It's hard to get an X-ray image of low-density material like tissue between bones because X-rays just pass right through like sunlight through a window. But what if you need to see the area that isn't bone?

Sandia National Laboratories studies myriads of low-density materials, from laminate layers in airplane wings to foams and epoxies that cushion parts. So Sandia borrowed and refined a technique being studied by the medical field, X-ray phase contrast imaging, to look inside the softer side of things without taking them apart.

Sandia has to be able to spot defects before they might cause a high-consequence failure, because materials don't perform well with voids or cracks or if they're separating from adjacent surfaces. For example, conventional X-rays can't see a defect called a grafoil in the laminate layers of an airplane wing without removing the protective copper mesh that diffuses energy if lightning hits the plane. And they can't see the critically important foams and other materials that guard against shock, high voltage breakdown and thermal stresses in nuclear weapon components.

X-ray phase contrast imaging measures not just the number of X-ray photons that get through the sample, as in conventional X-ray imaging, but also the phase of the X-rays after they pass through, offering a complete look at interfaces inside a structure.

"For low-density materials like plastics, polymers, foams and other encapsulants, this phase signal can be a thousand times bigger than the absorption signal (of conventional X-ray)," said principal investigator Amber Dagel, who studies physics-based microsystems.

X-ray phase contrast imaging could be used to inspect microfabrication packaging, integrated circuits or micro-electro-mechanical components and could be used to study ceramics, polymers, chemicals or explosives.



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