A year ago, we did a FirstLook of the Olympus Innov-X DELTA, a handheld device which looks like it was straight from Star Trek. While the DELTA was designed for the rapid screening and analysis of over 80 elements, including regulated toxic metals, the core X-ray technology has applications in many different markets. One such market is the non-destructive analysis of items for jewelers, pawn shop owners, and anyone who deals in the buying/selling of gold, silver, and other precious metals items.
Up until now, determining the precious metal content of jewelry, coins, and similar items has been an inexact process at best. Olympus’ new portable countertop GoldXpert XRF Analyzer is aiming to change all that. The GoldXpert uses the same proven technology as their other elemental analyzers. The technology is X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) Spectrometry: when a high-energy X-ray photon hits a sample, the impact causes a chain of events which results in a brief flash of fluorescence. The fluorescence is unique for each element. It is the detection of this unique “fingerprint” which enables the GoldXpert to tell what elements (metals) are present in a sample. The analysis is fast, accurate, and most important of all, does not harm or change the sample in any way.
The potential market for the GoldXpert is pawn shops, jewelry stores, and the like. While they may be knowledgeable about precious metals, they present a less technical customer base than those to whom Olympus has traditionally sold (the scientific analysis market). To make a device suitable for this new market, Olympus must make it easily operable by the average person.
After using the GoldXpert for just a few minutes, we think they have hit it the nail on the head. The device is no more difficult to use than a microwave or toaster oven. All one has to do is place the sample in the chamber, close the lid, and hit a button. The results appear on the LCD screen just seconds later.
We asked everyone in the office to bring in samples they would like tested. We then sorted the samples based on color (very rigorous): grey items into the “Silver” pile, yellow items into the “Gold” pile. Using the GoldXpert, we were able to run through more than a dozen samples in just a few minutes. The results were quite illuminating! Clearly all that glitters is NOT silver or gold.
We knew that most of the items in the “silver” pile were not silver, but it was interesting to see exactly what they were made of: Tin (Sn), Lead (Pb), Antimony (Sb). One item turned out to be almost pure silver (Ag) with a little bit of copper (Cu) mixed in. While most coins are not made from precious metals, the 1987 silver dollar was mostly (99.25%) silver mixed with a tiny bit of lead. Cool!
The “Gold” pile was even more illuminating. We found almost no gold in any of the gold-colored items (watchband, pin, cuff links). It really does show the utility of a machine such as the GoldXpert. For the first time, the average consumer can get fast accurate information on just exactly what they have, instantly.
The one item we tested which showed 100% gold was a computer CPU chip with a layer of gold on its back. Now you know why recycling used electronics can be a profitable business. However, the computer chip sample did raise some questions for us. Clearly the chip was not solid gold, yet the analysis did not show any other elements. We asked and were told that the GoldXpert was calibrated to detect metals, so elements such as silicon (the primary substrate for chips) would not be detected. Also, if the layer of gold was more than 10 microns thick the X-ray would not penetrate onto the other side to give other readings (typical plating for jewelry is much thinner).
There are limitations to the XRF technology, such as the depth of X-ray penetration, so users must still be on the lookout for those who may take advantage of the uninformed. However, with devices such as the GoldXpert, the days of “take our word for it” will soon be replaced by “show me the analysis.”