Optical spectroscopy of laser-produced plasmas for standoff isotopic analysis

S. S. Harilal, B. E. Brumfield, N. L. Lahaye, K. C. Hartig, M. C. Phillips

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

164 Scopus citations


Rapid, in-field, and non-contact isotopic analysis of solid materials is extremely important to a large number of applications, such as nuclear nonproliferation monitoring and forensics, geochemistry, archaeology, and biochemistry. Presently, isotopic measurements for these and many other fields are performed in laboratory settings. Rapid, in-field, and non-contact isotopic analysis of solid material is possible with optical spectroscopy tools when combined with laser ablation. Laser ablation generates a transient vapor of any solid material when a powerful laser interacts with a sample of interest. Analysis of atoms, ions, and molecules in a laser-produced plasma using optical spectroscopy tools can provide isotopic information with the advantages of real-time analysis, standoff capability, and no sample preparation requirement. Both emission and absorption spectroscopy methods can be used for isotopic analysis of solid materials. However, applying optical spectroscopy to the measurement of isotope ratios from solid materials presents numerous challenges. Isotope shifts arise primarily due to variation in nuclear charge distribution caused by different numbers of neutrons, but the small proportional nuclear mass differences between nuclei of various isotopes lead to correspondingly small differences in optical transition wavelengths. Along with this, various line broadening mechanisms in laser-produced plasmas and instrumental broadening generated by the detection system are technical challenges frequently encountered with emission-based optical diagnostics. These challenges can be overcome by measuring the isotope shifts associated with the vibronic emission bands from molecules or by using the techniques of laser-based absorption/fluorescence spectroscopy to marginalize the effect of instrumental broadening. Absorption and fluorescence spectroscopy probe the ground state atoms existing in the plasma when it is cooler, which inherently provides narrower lineshapes, as opposed to emission spectroscopy which requires higher plasma temperatures to be able to detect thermally excited emission. Improvements in laser and detection systems and spectroscopic techniques have allowed for isotopic measurements to be carried out at standoff distances under ambient atmospheric conditions, which have expanded the applicability of optical spectroscopy-based isotopic measurements to a variety of scientific fields. These technological advances offer an in-situ measurement capability that was previously not available. This review will focus on isotope detection through emission, absorption, and fluorescence spectroscopy of atoms and molecules in a laser-produced plasma formed from a solid sample. A description of the physics behind isotope shifts in atoms and molecules is presented, followed by the physics behind solid sampling of laser ablation plumes, optical methods for isotope measurements, the suitable physical conditions of laser-produced plasma plumes for isotopic analysis, and the current status. Finally, concluding remarks will be made on the existing knowledge/technological gaps identified from the current literature and suggestions for the future work.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number021301
JournalApplied Physics Reviews
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1 2018
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Physics and Astronomy


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