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The Next Big Step in X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF): An Interview with Dale Fox

Dale Fox, Co-Founder and CEO at Tribogenics, talks to AZoM about how they have achieved the next big step in X-ray fluorescence technology.

AC: Could you provide our readers with a summary of the history of Tribogenics and explain how the company has evolved since it was founded in 2011?

DF: Tribogenics was born out of a fascinating research project that was underwritten by an agency of the US government called DARPA. It’s well-known over here. This is an advanced research group. DARPA is responsible for spearheading major innovation in core science.

What I had realized is that the entire X-ray industry, whether it’s medical equipment or XRF equipment, all runs on a technology that essentially dates back to the late 1800s. Our electronics have been innovated through transistors and microchips but the X-ray industry really never evolved since it was first observed.

DARPA said let’s find a better way to do this. They started funding research at national laboratories and universities across the United States. One of those projects was at UCLA here in Los Angeles. In the physics department, those physicists made a significant breakthrough, one that was actually published on the cover of Nature Magazine in October of 2008.

What they discovered is that the principle we think of as static electricity is actually called tribocharging. It involves charges moving between various surfaces, basic material science. They realized that this phenomena is much more powerful than we previously thought, and if harvested correctly, could be used to make X-rays.

One of the scientists on the team, a gentleman named Dr. Carlos Camara, who was my co-founder, had the forethought to say, “I want to start a company around this technology.” He went to the university and then got in touch with me, and we came together and founded Tribogenics in 2011.We received backing from world-class venture capitalists like Peter Thiels’ Founder’s Fun

AC: Could you outline the history of XRF spectrometry and explain the theoretical principle of X-ray fluorescence spectrometry?

DF: XRF is a really fascinating phenomena. It was first observed earlier in this last century. What it involves is taking a very, very small burst of X-rays, less than a thousandth of what you’d have in a dental X-ray, and shining them at any substance. Typically this is done with metals, so anything from aluminium up to uranium.

When you shine the small amounts of X-rays onto substances the individual atoms inside of that give off a unique fingerprint depending on where they are in the periodic table. This unique fingerprint can then be read by the XRF device, which figures out what is present and in what quantities.

For example, if I point an XRF device at a small piece of metal, it may tell me that there’s 68% nickel, 14% iron and 11% chromium.  It will then look that up and identify that as a particular grade of metal. It’s fantastic for everything in the life cycle of metals, everything from mining and mineralogy to fabrication and retaining down to recycling and reprocessing and then putting that all back in the value chain again.

AC: What is triboluminescence and how does it work?

DF: Triboluminescence, or also known as tribocharging, involves the exchange of electrical charges between two surfaces. It turns out that everything in the world, when it comes into contact, naturally exchanges electrical charges.

This is what’s responsible for lightning, when two large clouds simply brush past each other in the sky and one becomes more positively charged than the other. It’s responsible for when you’re walking across the carpet in a pair of socks in wintertime, and you reach for the doorknob. You get a shock.

What’s actually happened here is that electrical charges are being exchanged, and you become charged relative to ground, so when you get close to the doorknob, there is a rush of electrons off of your body and onto ground.

This same phenomena can be replicated using very small systems. We have built devices that are smaller than a woman’s lipstick container that are entirely self-contained X-ray sources. The way they work is they have two specially designed materials inside, and we use a small motor to bring them in and out of contact. That process creates large amounts of electrical charge, which we then use to generate X-rays inside of this container.

It’s a fascinatingly elegant and simple process, but as you can imagine there’s a lot of challenges that we encountered over the years, behind getting it into a commercial form. We feel very lucky that we have such a wonderful technology and so may patents behind it. It’s a real honor to be able to bring this to the world.

AC: Why is the commercial release of Tribogenics’ triboluminescence technology the next big step in XRF technology?

DF: In XRF, the market has been around for a long time, and frankly hasn’t seen much innovation lately. All of the current market devices, especially the handheld devices from all of the major companies are essentially commodity products. There’s not that much delineation between them. On top of that, they’re very expensive, and this is one of the big complaints that we’ve heard from the market and from customers.

With our unique technology, we are able to do something that no one else has ever been able to do. We built Watson. Watson is different that all the other X-ray devices in the marketplace, in three key ways.

Firstly, generally speaking, XRF handheld devices range in price from about $25,000 up to about $65,000. Watson is $10,000. We broke that magical price barrier. We’ve heard so many people tell us, “I’d love to have an XRF device, but it’s simply too expensive for me.” We’re democratizing the technology by making it available to whoever needs it at its first ever price point. That’s a big breakthrough.

The second breakthrough is that every other XRF device in the world uses an electronic X-ray source that has a tube inside of it. These are expensive and they burn out every couple of years. When the XRF device’s tube burns out, you have to take your device and send it back to the manufacturer. You’re without it for 4 or 5 weeks, and you end up getting a repair bill that could be as high as $7,000 or $8,000. This is a real pain point for customers.

What we did instead is we said, “Let’s make X-rays into an exchangeable cartridge,” something like the inkjet printer cartridge you have today. Now our customers are able to take a simple X-ray source and plug and play into their device, and they’re able to do two things. One, they maintain constant up time. There is no more downed X-ray source and the need to send back to the manufacturer, because you’ll always have a spare on hand just like a battery.

The other thing, and this is where it really gets interesting, is our X-ray cartridges can be made in different energy levels and with different target materials so that you can do different kinds of analysis. With a traditional XRF device if you wanted a different kind of X-ray source, you’d have to buy a whole new device at $25,000 or $30,000. With Watson, you simply plug in a new cartridge, $299, and you have an entirely new tool capable of doing new types of analysis. This is a powerful shift.

Finally, the third difference here is that traditional XRF systems are built around a small handheld computer that displays the results. If you’re lucky this computer might be able to tether to a laptop so that you can export that file. Other than that, these are simply analytical instruments.

Watson is based around Android, the same technology that’s in the smartphone in your pocket. Watson is a fully connected device. It’s connected to the Cloud and to the internet, so we can do things that no one else can do. We can build business intelligence tools that help track your inventory or gain latest market pricing or provide reports into management straight from the device.

We can also download updated software at all times and improve your analytical accuracy by changing the tables inside of your device based on what you’re seeing. This is a really powerful way that Watson differs from the marketplace. Over time this is an area of growth where we add a tremendous degree of functionality that positions us further ahead of the competition.

AC: What are the main application areas for the Watson XRF and could you explain how this instrument can be used in each of these areas?

DF: Watson is used to identify metals. The primary area for us is machining, manufacturing, and scrap recycling. In the machining and manufacturing industry, and we’ve seen this with our customers, there are materials that arrive that are processed into finished goods. Those materials arrive with certifications that say this is 347 stainless steel or this is 315 stainless steel.

These machinists and fabricators trust those certifications, but they aren’t always accurate. When they’re not, you can end up in a disaster costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. If the wrong material arrives, and finds its way into finished goods, the customer says, “Thank you, but these don’t meet our specifications.” They are then rejected. The cost and damage to your reputation and to your client is huge.

With Watson, especially in the machining and manufacturing segments, it’s about having a really cheap insurance policy.  We want to make sure that, from the moment any material arrives in your facility, you can validate that it is what it is and then trace it through the entire life cycle of conversion from a raw good into a finished good and then be able to provide that traceability to your client as validation that you’re doing great work.

This is resonating very deeply with your audience. It’s something that hasn’t been possible until now, because the other units have simply been too expensive and haven’t had the additional features of being able to create these kinds of interactive reports for management. That’s one big one.

In scrap recycling, it’s about being able to identify something and then buy it at a good price, and here Watson shines. Watson can identify various elements, various materials, so that when someone brings something in you know what it is, but since Watson’s connected, Watson can also go online and pull up the latest market pricing for that material.

Other applications for Watson include mining and mineralogy. We’re going to be releasing some advanced technology later in 2016 that allows Watson to detect rare earth elements and other elements that are important for mining.

Also, we’re going to be moving into precious metal identification, developing a really low cost system that will be designed for jewellers and anyone who buys and sells precious metals to be able to do an accurate analysis and get beyond the plating down to the underlying metal. This is really exciting for us. There are a number of applications here that are exciting.

AC: In which countries around the world is the Watson XRF available for order?

DF: We’ve just launched in the USA.  In the first half of 2016 we will begin to move internationally through partnerships with distributors and companies. If you’re local you can get in touch with Tribogenics, or just simply hit our website. We have reps all around the country who are able to demonstrate the unit and answer any questions.

AC: How do you see Tribogenics’ sales and marketing activities growing over the next few years?

DF: We’re really excited about the response we have had to date, and simply right now, we’re fielding requests as fast as possible. We’ve created a backlog of orders and we are trying to ship units as quickly as we can to beat the demand in the marketplace. We’re scaling up and adding staff both internally and externally in order to meet all of those demands.

AC: Where can our readers find out more information about Watson XRF and Tribogenics more generally?

DF: The easiest place is our website. If you go to tribogenics.com, you’ll hit our main website, and there’s a subsection called Products, which has a lot of detailed information on Watson including case studies, white papers, demonstration videos, interviews. It’s just a really rich repository of information, and it should answer most people’s questions.

Then, of course, there’s the opportunity on there to get in touch with us directly. You can always talk to somebody at Tribogenics. We’re based in the US, in California. All of our products are made in the US. We’re able to answer all the detailed questions you have, and you’ll get directly in touch with our own technical staff, no call centers with us.

About Dale Fox

As the CEO of Tribogenics, Dale Fox leads an exceptional team that is revolutionizing X-ray technology across a $20B market space encompassing major industries such as recycling, mining, military, medical imaging, and security.

Tribogenics has developed a technology that eliminates the need for high voltage, allowing them to create miniature, low-cost X-ray sources that drive products and solutions unattainable with existing X-ray sources. Tribogenics technology is based on a DARPA-funded initiative that originated at UCLA and the company is venture-backed by prominent investors, including Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund.

Dale is a seasoned startup entrepreneur and inventor with a proven record of turning ideas into revenue generating businesses. Dale has successfully launched multiple companies, brought over two dozen products to market, built world-class executive and advisory teams, raised numerous rounds of venture and debt funding and enjoyed a successful exit.

Dale loves helping young entrepreneurs get off the ground and routinely mentor a handful of promising early-stage companies. Dale is a perpetual optimist and a believer in a brighter future through technology. Dale loves golden retrievers, great food, mid-century design, amazing coffee, sunny destinations, and nearly every electronic gadget he has laid his eyes upon.

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