Material Characterization Techniques

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What is Material Characterization?

Material characterization enables researchers to determine the structure of a material, how this structure relates to its macroscopic properties, and how it will behave in technological applications.

Definitions of what is considered “material characterization” vary. While some use the term to refer to any materials analysis process, including bulk thermal analysis and density testing, this blog post focuses on the material characterization techniques used to study the microscopic properties of materials.

Most of these material characterization techniques can be categorized as either microscopy or spectroscopy.

Microscopy Techniques

Microscopy, the study of materials and surfaces using microscopes, is one of the most fundamental methods of material characterization and scientific research in general. Microscopes use a variety of different methods to produce magnified images of materials and surfaces.

Optical microscopes

Used everywhere from high school science classrooms to state-of-the-art laboratories, the optical microscope is one of the world’s most recognizable pieces of scientific equipment. Optical microscopes use lenses and mirrors to produce a magnified image using visible light. While incredibly useful for a huge range of applications, light microscopes are fundamentally limited by the relationship between the wavelength and energy of photons which puts their maximum magnifying power at around 1,000x.

Many variations on optical microscopy exist, including several that make use of fluorescence to improve imaging power (e.g., fluorescence, confocal and two-photon microscopy).

Electron microscopes

There are several types of electron microscopy, most notably scanning electron microscopy (SEM), transmission electron microscopy (TEM), and scanning tunneling microscopy (STM). These use beams of electrons rather than beams of light to carry out material characterization. Together, electron microscopes are the most powerful microscopes in the world, capable of imaging at up to 50,000,000x magnification.

Other microscopy techniques

Several other types of microscopy can be used for material characterization, including:

  • Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM)
  • X-ray Microscopy
  • Ultraviolet (UV) Microscopy

Spectroscopic Techniques

Spectroscopic techniques are numerous and varied, but all involve measuring the response of a material to different frequencies of electromagnetic radiation. Depending on the technique used, material characterization may be based on the absorption, emission, impedance, or reflection of incident energy by a sample.

Spectroscopy is a very broad field, and a huge number of techniques exist. Some of the most popular include X-ray spectroscopy, infrared (IR) spectroscopy, Raman spectroscopy, and Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR).

Other Material Characterization Techniques

Many techniques used for material characterization fall outside the categories of microscopy and spectroscopy. Some of the most well-known examples are:

  • Diffraction techniques such as X-ray diffraction are typically used to determine crystal structure.
  • Nanoindentation, whereby material characterization can be carried out based on the nanoscale response of a material to a very small and precise mechanical probe known as a nanoindenter.
  • Electrical and magnetic techniques including impedance spectroscopy.

Platypus Technologies provides a variety of intermediate goods for a range of spectroscopic and material characterization techniques; including high purity metal film substrates for spectroscopy and microscopy applications. We also provide a custom metal coating service using e-beam vapor deposition. To find out more, get in touch with us at