21 December 2009

A microscopic look at some counter materials

Dartmouth College

Another great contact I've made through Twitter in the last few months is the Aspex Corporation in Pittsburgh, PA. Aspex has been in business since the early '90s and they have embraced social media with a savvy and confidence that makes them stand out. The Aspex Corporation makes Scanning Electron Microscopes among other things and that a company in a very technical field and a kitchen designer could strike up a casual acquaintance is a great example of the expansion and simultaneous contraction of the world made possible by social media.

A scanning electron microscope (or SEM) is an instrument for visualizing the surfaces of objects and materials not possible through ordinary optical microscopes. Rather than using a lens to magnify reflected light (an optical microscope) SEMs use a focused beam of electrons to scan a surface.

Aspex Corporation

The electrons bounce back to a detector and the detector generates an image. SEMs can only "see" a small section of an object at a time. So the object being examined is placed on a Sample Stage in the SEM and the stage makes small, incremental movements called rasters. The rasters are then compiled into a complete image and displayed on a screen. It's pretty cool stuff. Most people have seen SEM images of ant's heads or snowflakes and that's a quick explanation of how those images were made.

Well Aspex is running an offer to scan and analyze any sample that can fit inside the chamber of one of their SEMs for free so I took them up on their offer.

I enjoy cutting through marketing speak to an almost unhealthy degree and counter materials are a product category rife with it. For as long as they've been around, I've heard the claims made by quartz composite manufacturers that their products were "perfectly smooth and non-porous." Since this claim is always made during a comparison with the surface irregularities of granite my BS meter goes off.

Quartz composites are a perfectly fine material and I specify their use all the time. In my mind, they are an alternative to natural stone counters but not a substitute for them. They have a very unique look and there are specific times when their use is called for. At the same time, sometimes the over all look of a room calls for granite or soapstone or marble. These materials are not interchangeable and each one has its strengths and weaknesses.

So when Aspex Corporation made its offer to scan any sample I could fit into the chamber of one of their SEMs, I decided to put to the test the quartz composite claims of perfect smoothness and non porosity.

I took two samples that had been sitting on the end of my desk for years and shipped them off to Aspex.

The samples I sent were a piece of Santa Cecelia granite and Sienna Ridge by Silestone. This is by no means an accurate sampling of an entire industry's products. Rather, this is a test of two very specific and very well handled samples. The evidence presented here is anecdotal at best but I still there's something valid to be learned.

photo from Aspex Corp.

Here are my samples upon arrival at Aspex.

photo from Aspex Corp.

Here they are relaxing in front of the PSEM eXpress, Aspex Corporation's bench top model.

The degree of magnification in the following examples is expressed with a scale in each image. The scale is in microns and a micron is another word for a micrometer. A micro meter is a millionth of a meter, put another way, a micron is 1/1000th of a millimeter. Microns are abbreviated as µm. To give you a little more perspective, a human air is 100µm wide and a red blood cell is 8µm in diameter. Salmonella bacteria are 2µm in length and 0.5µm wide.

So here's what my sample of Santa Cecilia looks like.

In this image, the scale at the top reads 200µm. So if you took two human hairs and set them side by side, they would be as wide as the scale.

In this image the scale reads 1000µm. So if you took ten human hairs and set they side by side, they would be as wide as the scale.

Here's another Santa Cecilia granite image at 1000µm.

Now it's quartz composite's turn.

Here's my quartz composite sample with a scale that reads 200µm.

Here is is at a higher magnification, 1000µm

And another shot of it at 1000µm.

Pretty cool, huh? Now, I will grant the quartz composite people an acknowledgement that this sample is smoother than this sample of granite, but I would hardly call it "perfectly smooth and non porous."

So what I take away from this is that I won't be swayed by claims that I should specify quartz composites over natural stone because they are smoother and non-porous (and more hygienic by implication) and I will continue to use composites where they would look best and natural stone where it would look best.

What do you think?

In the meantime, poke around on Aspex Corp's website. You can even send in something of your own with this form. They have a pretty cool contest every week where they invite people to guess what a scan is. Here's last week's:

Care to hazard a guess?

Why it's a Post-it note being pulled back from the pad of course.

Thanks Aspex!


  1. I wondered at the logic of Silestone's tactic of infusing it's quartz material with Microban®. If it was completely smooth and nonporous, how could it possibly help? Now I know...

    It would also be interesting to see a scan of acrylic countertop material.

  2. I'm curious about solid surface too, maybe I'll ship some more samples up to Aspex...

    The Microban thing always bothered me because it's a pharmaceutical antibiotic. Look for a blistering expose on that topic in early 2010.

    In the meantime, this has been really interesting and I think it warrants some further investigating.

  3. Very scientific. I agree with you, granite, quartz and marble have their place in design. Say, it would be cool to see marble magnified in the PSEM Express.

  4. Send 'em a piece of marble, they love this kind of stuff. I too wonder how solid surface would look.

  5. Welcome back Paul. Missed ya but just popping in quickly to wish you a HAPPY HOLIDAY Season and a VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS.

    Am on the run or should I say "am speeding up my pace" since I just recently celebrated ANOTHER Birthday, and don't move as fast as I use to.

    Hoping Santa grants you everything on your 'Wish List'. Xmas hugs -Brenda-

  6. very cool, paul. my inner science geek loved this post!

  7. Keep up the good work, Paul - love it!

  8. Brenda: Thanks for the well wishes and happy belated birthday. I wish you nothing but the best for a merry Christmas and a peaceful new year. Thanks so much for your contributions this year.

    Christian: I'm am glad I'm not the only one with an inner science geek rattling around in my head.

    Amir: Thanks for posting a comment, you were one of my first back links back in the day and I owe you a debt of gratitude for it. So thank you!

  9. This is the most nerdishly inventive and interesting thing I've seen in awhile. If you ever consider a second career, you'd make a first-rate scientist.

  10. Thanks Melody, I was concerned that I was going to screw up my explanations of the mechanics of SEM, but I think I got it. I was channeling you when I clarified that this was an anecdote and not a valid sample from which to draw any sweeping generalities. Maybe there's a PhD lurking inside of me somewhere. I think I'd be a happy man indeed with my life spent at a bench in a lab. So long as I could blog about it afterward.

  11. These pictures are worth a million words! Everyday, I explain to clients how the different stones are made up and how they compare! Such an interesting post!!!

  12. Thanks! I think I learned more from the research I did on this post than any other.


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