At The Cutting Edge of Specialist Chemical Analysis

SOCOTEC provides a range of chemical analysis services and tests, including ICP analysis, BTEX testing, air quality analysis, FTIR analysis and metal testing. In this blog, Paul Walker, technical specialist, Infrastructure & Energy Services, describes one of the more unusual cases to come through the laboratory doors.


When examining a material by sight or by hand, we can usually make an educated guess or an assumption about what that substance may be. However, this isn’t always possible or an assumption may be incorrect, which is when specialist chemical analysis services can prove useful.

We regularly help our clients identify unknown materials and our specialist chemical analysis laboratory can provide vital information for them in a number of ways.

For example, some of our customers may require the chemical characterisation of unknowns such as dusts and deposits or to investigate the premature blocking of fuel and air filters. The results we provide them with can mean the difference between regulatory compliance and non-compliance. These tests can also determine the nature of contaminants in food and other consumable goods, which can help those in the retail and food manufacturing industries ensure the safety of consumers.

Although industrial and commercial testing is what we ordinarily do, there have been occasions when we've been presented with slightly more unusual challenges. One project in particular, involved testing an antique sword for an auction house to establish the chemical make-up of its hilt which had, what appeared to be, melt marks and felt like plastic. At first, it was suspected that the hilt was made out of a manmade polymer, but the auctioneers wanted to be certain and approached SOCOTEC’s specialist chemical analysis team to find out exactly what the material was.




When the sword initially came into our labs for testing, results from our forensic examination using Scanning Electron Microscope with Energy Dispersive X-ray analysis (SEM-EDX) suggested the hilt was made of a natural organic material rather than manmade. We then carried out testing by Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) on the object. FTIR works by shining a beam of infrared light through the material, and measuring what frequency and how much of that beam is absorbed by the sample. The resulting spectrum can then be compared against a database of reference spectra, with a close match being enough to confirm an item’s chemical make-up.

The spectrum taken from the sword hilt was compared against samples in SOCOTEC’s extensive FTIR spectral library to specifically identify the substance. As it turns out, it was indeed from a natural organic source and our library was able to identify it as an animal antler.

Once we had determined the make-up of the sword, we passed it back to the auctioneers, who were then consulted the British Museum for further historical context.



The sword hilt is just one example of many strange and varied items that have been analysed against our extensive chemical analysis library over the course of 17 years. At SOCOTEC, we always welcome a challenge. Our specialist chemical analysis services are provided to a range of industries including aerospace, automotive, petrochemical, medical, manufacturing, building and construction and the rail industry.

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