Imaging is the cornerstone of materials characterization. Until the middle of the present century, visible light imaging provided much of the information about materials. Though visible light imaging still plays an extremely important role in characterization, relatively low spatial resolution and lack of chemical sensitivity and specificity limit its usefulness.
The discovery of x-rays and electrons led to a major advance in imaging technology. X-ray diffraction and electron microscopy allowed us to characterize the atomic structure of materials. Many materials vital to our high technology economy and defense owe their existence to the understanding of materials structure brought about with these high-resolution methods.
Electron microscopy is an essential tool for materials characterization. Unfortunately, electron imaging is always destructive due to the sample preparation that must be done prior to imaging. Furthermore, electron microscopy only provides information about the surface of a sample. Three dimensional information, of great interest in characterizing many new materials, can be obtained only by time consuming sectioning of an object.
The development of intense synchrotron light sources in addition to the improvements in solid state imaging technology is revolutionizing materials characterization. High resolution x-ray imaging is a potentially valuable tool for materials characterization. The large depth of x-ray penetration, as well as the sensitivity of absorption crosssections to atomic chemistry, allows x-ray imaging to characterize the chemistry of internal structures in macroscopic objects with little sample preparation. X-ray imaging complements other imaging modalities, such as electron microscopy, in that it can be performed nondestructively on metals and insulators alike.