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  • The BWB Team

Flame Photometer Uses: It’s a broader range than you think

Atomic Emission Spectroscopy (AES), or Flame Photometry, as it is more commonly known, has a surprisingly large range of uses. Most people think of bioassays when the topic comes up. Few talk about industrial manufacturing, quality control, pollution monitoring, remote sensing, process automation, or other topics.

Technological innovations have allowed Flame Photometers to penetrate many markets. They now feature high reliability, the ability to operate continuously with little maintenance, and even remote control options for distance monitoring. This leads to automation components that automatically sample and then dilute a sample of approximately known concentration to a range where the machine can report the most accurate results.

Medicinal research

Of course, sodium and potassium levels in blood and tissues are important because those are our body’s electrolytes. Without them, you could not live since even an electrolyte imbalance can be fatal, as discovered too late in a tragic story about a radio station promoting a water drinking contest to win a Nintendo Wii.

The contestant drank about three litres of water one after the other, collected her prize, went home with a bad headache, and died from water poisoning within hours. Her electrolytes were so diluted that her body’s regulatory system failed. Had she gone directly to medical help because of the severe headache, they might have been able to rebalance her sodium and dehydrate her in time.

Knowing all of these levels can help with the diagnosis of many disease processes. Calcium levels can be diagnostic for assessing bone disease; lithium levels can help judge the effectiveness of medications; and, of course, potassium and sodium can help identify deficiencies leading to cognitive impairment, neurological failure, and paucity or toxicity for the whole body.


Testing drugs to make sure they have the correct amount of the claimed ingredients is vital for safety. As well, the glass or plastic vials for vaccines are tested to see if they elute contaminants into the medicine before such containers are approved for use.

The same testing is done for IV (intravenous) bags. Once filled with ionic solutions of sodium or potassium reagents, those, too, are tested to make sure they comply with the package claims.

Quality Control

This is quite a broad area in and of itself. Personal protective equipment (PPE) for example must meet certain standards. N95 masks, for example, must resist moisture, saliva, and viruses. Filtering Face Pieces (FFP) in Class 3 must meet this requirement, too, whereas FFP 1 & 2 designs are less useful for going into COVID-19 environments, and dealing with viruses, airborne water droplets, or dust.

These are tested by placing the test mask between a pressurized chamber filled with vaporized saline solution and anything that passes through the mask goes to the Flame Photometer which is set to detect sodium from the saline. How much passes through determines the rating for the FFP; for QA (Quality Assurance) testing it must meet its stated rating to be sold.

Food Industry

The food “final product” whether a can of soup, a bag of frozen peas, or a candy bar must meet the specifications declared on the label. If something says Sodium………………45 mg per 40 gram serving, then you can rely on that number being accurate.

Beyond testing the actual end product, they also test the ingredients all during the process to make sure everything will work out in the end. Applesauce will vary depending on the input apples for each batch, so adjustments will be made during manufacturing so they don’t have to re-label their cans or bottles for each batch. It may call for adding some low-potassium apples, or high sodium apples, or even just a touch of salt to make sure they hit those exact numbers each time.

This is even more important with products like infant formula to make sure babies get all the nutrients they need for their fast growing bodies. In the meat production industry, random samples of mechanically deboned meat are burned to ash and then tested for their calcium levels in order to detect if they are contaminated by too much bone from the butchering process.

Water Desalination Processes

Whether you’re using a solar mirror array to boil water to steam or accomplishing that with nuclear or hydroelectric power, humans need non-brackish water for crops, and drinking. By installing remotely monitored Flame Photometer stations throughout the process, deviations and errors can be discovered long before the entire process is affected.

An unmanned testing station can monitor water quality continuously, reporting to a central location. There, a human can deal with difficulties before they become serious problems. Indeed, even that might be partially automated so that water that is higher salinity than permitted is automatically shunted back to an earlier process to be treated again, all without human intervention.

Even soda pop is now monitored for sodium and potassium content. The major brands are so concerned with consistency for their products that they would do it anyway, even if it wasn’t required by law.

They require local bottling plants to pass local water through three one-storey tall, massive sand filters before it can even be introduced to their beverage making process! Travelers Trick: If you’re ever concerned about the water quality when traveling just drink the major beverage brands (without ice!) and you won’t find anything purer or safer.

Soil Analysis

Whether it is soil for a farmer’s field, tailings from a mine, or actual production from a salt mine, the accuracy of flame photometry is relied upon for analysis and to protect the environment. Farm field soil may have too much fertilizer and the run off may be hazardous. By tracking the potassium fraction, the phosphorous and nitrogen components can be deduced, and money can be saved by not applying more fertilizer than is actually needed.

If there is a particularly wet season and runoff is unavoidable, these same tests can be run on affected bodies of water. It is then possible to start remediation processes to restore the normal balance for the environment.

Wastewater Management

Water treatment plants continuously monitor sodium, potassium, lithium, calcium, barium, and several others. Generally speaking, water comes from a higher point and is discharged at a lower point since gravity makes this the easiest way to function. Precipitating any “bad” stuff keeps the environmental impact low.

In some low-lift situations, where there is little difference between the influent and effluent levels, wastewater is partially recirculated once treated, especially where water is ordinarily scarce. It is doubly important to make sure the water is potable before sending it back into the system. FP monitoring makes this a reasonably simple process.

Concrete Evidence & the Chemical Industry

Like all the other industries mentioned, Flame Photometers play an important role in production control and process monitoring in the chemical industry. One perfect example is the cement industry.

If you have ever seen a concrete structure deteriorating, it may be because of Concrete Cancer. When the Romans invented concrete, they knew that certain additives like crushed and burned bone were essential and would make it incredibly strong. They also discovered that if they didn’t use these techniques, concrete wouldn’t set properly underwater. The piers that they made for their ships are still there; some are in use; some have sunk below water level as the seafloor settled beneath them, but an astonishing number are still intact.

Concrete Cancer is caused by the presence of excessive sodium and potassium in the mix which makes the material flake and crack. Conversely, the presence of calcium makes the concrete even stronger. Flame photometry reveals these substances early, allowing mitigation to take place before the cement is blended into concrete.

Overall, the chemical industry relies on reproducibility so anyone with the same process and materials can do exactly the same thing. Flame photometry is a welcome addition to any lab because of its remarkable consistency and reliability, making the job much easier.

If you want your work to be more consistent and reliable, give us a call today so we can make you the experts in your field with faultless results and great data and products! We’d love to hear from you!


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